Chris Heaton-Harris pledges ‘support where possible’ for flood-hit communities
The Northern Ireland Secretary has said the UK Government is “ready to support and provide assistance where possible”, as the leaders of the five main Stormont parties called for immediate emergency funding for businesses and homes devastated by recent flooding.
Areas of counties Down, Antrim and Armagh suffered flooding after heavy rain last week.
Chris Heaton-Harris said the floods have been “devastating for those affected”.
In a statement, he said: “Whilst this is directly a matter for the relevant NI departments, we will continue to engage with them and Northern Ireland’s parties on the communities impacted. We stand ready to support and provide assistance where possible.
“We continue to work very closely with the Northern Ireland Civil Service to get the best information on the scale of the impact and to explore options to support businesses which have been hit by flooding, and we are in touch with the NI parties on this.”
The leaders of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland urged him to immediately request additional resources from the Treasury for an emergency relief scheme for householders and businesses.
In a joint letter, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, the UUP’s Doug Beattie and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said there could be business closures and job losses without financial support.
They wrote: “Repairing the extensive damage caused by flooding is also a massive financial pressure for families already suffering the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.
“Communities, businesses and families need immediate help, but given the precarious financial position of local departments, this requires additional funding.
“As leaders of the main political parties, we would urge you to immediately request from the Treasury, and specific to this weather event, additional resources for an emergency relief scheme to assist local householders and businesses, and to protect jobs and community facilities.
“Collectively, we should spare no effort to protect vulnerable businesses, families and communities facing this enormous and unforeseen financial pressure.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said his officials are doing everything they can to facilitate the return of “locally elected, accountable and effective devolved government”.
He said this is the best way for Northern Ireland to be governed.
“Discussions with the Northern Ireland parties are ongoing, with a focus on encouraging a return of the executive as soon as possible.”
Ms O’Neill visited Downpatrick on Monday, where businesses were beginning the clean-up operation after some were nearly entirely submerged in water for days.
Work continued across the weekend in Downpatrick to pump the water out of the town.
The collapse of the Stormont Assembly has left senior civil servants leading government departments with limited powers.
Ms O’Neill said the business community in Downpatrick was “absolutely traumatised and devastated” by the flooding.
“There’s no way to sugar-coat the depth of feeling here among the local business community who are now wondering about how they’re going to pick up the pieces and actually rebuild their businesses,” she said.
“Clearly for the last number of days the effort has been on the immediacy of the flooding issue itself, but now very quickly minds are turning towards how they’re going to get through the weeks and months ahead.
“The very clear demand of the local business community here is that there is a strong financial package put in place to help them get through and to rebuild their businesses, and that must be forthcoming.
“There is no executive in place at this time. The business community here don’t want to hear the politicking, they want to hear what does a support package look like.”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn criticised the level of support for victims of flooding in the region.
He compared the situation with the aftermath of Storm Babet in England when a number of support schemes were announced.
“In Northern Ireland, all there is at the moment is the scheme of emergency financial assistance that has been activated,” he told the BBC.
“That means homeowners, but not businesses, can get £1,000 – and that is not enough.
“This is a crisis, people are in trouble, they need help. It’s very simple, and not having an executive in Northern Ireland doesn’t help because it’s at times like this you really need your government.”
The DUP has been out of the Assembly for more than a year in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The party remains in talks with the Government to address unionist concerns at the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework.
Sir Jeffrey said his party is working hard to help businesses and homeowners affected by the flooding.
He said even if Stormont was sitting, it “doesn’t have a big pot of money”.
“It is a priority for us, but at the end of the day, let’s be clear about this, Stormont is projecting an overspend this year of hundreds of millions of pounds,” he told the BBC.
“It doesn’t have a big pot of money sitting there ready to be handed over, that’s why I’m going to be at Westminster talking to the people who can deliver that additional support over and above the rates relief scheme and the £1,000 for householders affected by flooding.
“More needs to be done, we’re working on that. We’ll work with the Government to deliver the support that people need, including for farmers as well.”
Patrick Brown, Alliance MLA for South Down, whose constituency office in Market Lane was damaged by floods, called for Mr Heaton-Harris to provide financial aid to businesses, some of whom have seen damage estimated at more than £100,000.
“I think all Stormont departments have to chip in and support businesses to come out of this as well,” he said.
“But ultimately that leadership needs to come from the Secretary of State, and we need Westminster to reach in their pocket because we know what the current financial landscape is like in Northern Ireland.
“We obviously don’t have an executive there or anyone to show leadership in that regard politically. So we need them to step up.”
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole, who visited businesses in Downpatrick on Monday, said the scenes were “heartbreaking”.
“It is frankly shocking that we don’t have proper clarity on the support they’re going to get yet.”
Mr O’Toole said his message to Mr Heaton-Harris was “don’t wait any longer”.
“People here need support. This isn’t a political game. This isn’t about putting pressure on people politically one way or the other,” he said.
“Chris Heaton-Harris needs to be absolutely clear that he is going to fund and support and the UK Government is going to fund and support the small businesses of this town.”
The best videos delivered daily
Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox