Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Simon Hamilton's lonely battle to wean us off Treasury alms

Simon Hamilton MLA is Minister of Finance
Simon Hamilton MLA is Minister of Finance

My admiration for Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has been growing steadily, for not only is he a realist who seems on top of his job, but he declines to follow the party line slavishly.

He amazed me when he overturned Sammy Wilson's block on libel reform and asked the Law Commission to examine the issue and make a recommendation.

"I was mindful," he said last week, "that, while it was not a topic that anyone came into my constituency office, or even wrote to me about, it was a topic of debate and discussion between members of the Press and media and some in the legal profession."

That must infuriate those of his party who learned from Sinn Fein how threatening libel suits for the flimsiest of reasons can be a nice little earner.

Since then, without histrionics, he has been patiently explaining stark facts that people don't want to hear, like that Northern Ireland has already secured all the concessions that the Treasury will agree to and that the Sinn Fein veto on welfare reform is already damaging public services.

He has criticised overspending by the health department, even though minister Edwin Poots is a party colleague, blaming "poor budget management within the department".

There was no such even-handedness when Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness cut one of their selfish deals and ring-fenced the budgets of the health and education departments, run respectively by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Mr Poots may yet bring down Stormont by refusing petulantly to live within his spending limits, but in fairness to him, Sinn Fein's hypocrisy and selfishness are very provoking.

"Unionist leaders and their pro-austerity allies in the Alliance Party have been queuing up to tell us that Tory welfare cuts are unavoidable," explained Foyle MLA Raymond McCartney. "They would punish the poor and the vulnerable."

Actually, there are very few politicians – including Tories – who want to "punish the poor and vulnerable".

But responsible politicians understand the concept of living within your means, while Sinn Fein are highwaymen, dedicated to using other people's money to help bribe their way to power.

The truth is bleak.

Welfare cuts were introduced in the United Kingdom because the present level of spending is simply unaffordable and also because the coalition Government is trying to release people from the benefit trap.

With average earnings £25,600 and many people earning much less, it doesn't seem unreasonable to put an annual cap of £27,000 on the welfare benefits any household can claim.

Bearing in mind how low is the cost of living in Belfast compared with London, I found it amazing that the Treasury exempted Northern Ireland for four years from the removal of the spare room subsidy.

But that hasn't satisfied Sinn Fein, whose ludicrous demand is that Stormont should just say no to any cuts at all.

The effrontery of their position reminded me of the economist Graham Gudgin, who from 1999 to 2002 was David Trimble's special adviser on economic policy.

Driven to distraction by most Northern Irish politicians, he recommended that a statue should be erected outside City Hall to the Unknown British Taxpayer.

The Treasury is well aware that mainland taxpayers already resent the amount of public money lavished on Northern Ireland. Hence its determination to impose cuts in the block grant if there is no progress on welfare reform: £13m has been deducted already, with another £87m expected in the next few months and from 2016, £200m annually.

Mr McGuinness had agreed a deal, but he was overruled by Gerry Adams, who is fixated on the Republic's 2016 general election.

Since Sinn Fein savage austerity at every opportunity, Adams knows they'll be damagingly accused of double standards if they agree to welfare cuts in the north.

Yet he also knows that they won't get into government if they're seen to have brought down Stormont, which is why he's warning of peace being in trouble and it all being the fault of the DUP.

Poor Simon Hamilton.

It must be tough being a grown-up in a political kin-dergarten.

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