Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Ministers meet to grasp the nettles

Executive Ministers held an informal five-hour session last week to attempt to hammer out their policy priorities and strategy for the months ahead.

First Minister Ian Paisley, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Finance Minister Peter Robinson were present for the meeting, which replaced plans for an Executive "away day".

Several dates had been pencilled in for the "away day" gathering but none seemed to suit everyone, and time is now beginning to press on Ministers.

Some observers believe Ministers will soon have to get down to the 'real politik' of horsetrading, to avoid obstacles becoming roadblocks.

While several issues - the National Stadium, 11-plus Irish language act, water charges, and so on - will produce the kind of rows and rhetoric of old in the months ahead, the key pressure point at present appears to be finance.

Finance Minister Peter Robinson fired a shot across the bows of other Ministers on the very first day of devolution, threatening he would make full use of his scrutiny powers to ensure that Departments "meet their budgetary commitments within the agreed timescales and deliver value for money".

It was this ruling which later lead to his rebuke of Deputy First Minister McGuinness, Education Minister Catriona Ruane and Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie when they supported the introduction in principle of free personal care for the elderly.

Apart from policy priorities, however, many other issues, not least the freeze of public administration reform and local government upheaval, have enormous financial implications.

Finance naturally goes hand-in-glove with development of the Executive's Programme for Government, which is expected to be finalised by December.

But there have been rumblings that some internal deadlines within the comprehensive spending review are starting to slip. MLAs intend to attempt to uncover exactly what state the financial round is in by asking a series of questions, including Departmental estimates of their underspends.

The difficulties are exacerbated by the apparent failure to get Gordon Brown to provide a significant package - though Mr Paisley told the Assembly on Monday he hoped the Prime Minister could still be persuaded - or to align corporation tax in Northern Ireland with the Republic.

The strategy so far seems to have consisted of buying time and hoping a consensus will emerge in the autumn.

On the Irish language act there have have been ominous murmerings, including Barry McElduff, the Sinn Fein vice-chair of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee who warned "we all have vetoes."

The Irish language legislation remains, however, a promise made by the Government during the St Andrews negotiations almost a year ago, and may still be resolved by the passing of an Act at Westminster.

Overall, the development of a coherent Programme for Government remains a considerable challenge.

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