Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Tough choices for Robinson budget

Finance Minister Peter Robinson has been preaching fiscal restraint in his first 100 days. But, as Chris Thornton reports, tougher tests are coming for the man who writes the executive's cheques

Three men have been Finance Minister in the brief spells of devolved government since 1998. The first, Mark Durkan, left the job for the First Ministers' Office. The second, Sean Farren, is now retired from representative politics.

Given his choice, it's not difficult to see which of his predecessors' paths the current occupant would prefer to follow.

In the first 100 days of devolution, Peter Robinson has, at the very least, raised the profile of the most dependably dull but worthy post in the Northern Ireland Executive.

That in itself could considered an accomplishment, but the way Mr Robinson has gone about raising that profile has so far helped set the public tone of the Executive itself.

From Skodagate - when he personally tested the limos that were said not be grand enough for Ministers - to the more serious business of departmental spending, he has preached fiscal restraint. But it is in the Executive's next phase that he has to prove he can practice it, too.

Within the first month of the new administration, Mr Robinson had successfully slapped down free-spending talk by some of his Executive colleagues - notably when Education Minister Catriona Ruane talked about getting new money for literacy, and when Ministers voted in favour of a non-binding resolution supporting free care for the elderly.

Mr Robinson - who got Ministers to agree to spending controls inside the Executive - accused some colleagues of "crowd pleasing", saying the big talk would only lead to bigger rates bills.

However, he has been supportive of other Ministers as well, even as the expense of political point scoring - most notably when Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew announced the sale of her department's s plant testing station to help farmers meet EU environmental demands.

Mr Robinson's DUP colleague, Agriculture Committee chairman William McCrea, accused her of selling off the family silver. But Mr Robinson defended Ms Gildernew, making pointed comments about "a culture of a direct rule mindset - shouting for money and not coming up with the solutions to fix the problem."

In their second month of operation, the Executive faced their first unforeseen event - flooding in Belfast and Omagh - and the first large-scale outcry from the governed, including complaints about the way various departments reacted to the floods.

The response was to give handouts to flood victims, as well as cash support to councils. Mr Robinson - whose constituents in east Belfast made up a high proportion of the flooded - announced £5m in relief.

This exception to Mr Robinson's financial restraints was trumpeted as evidence that the Executive could respond to a crisis. But there were also concerns that they had thrown money at a problem to divert criticism.

The real test of Mr Robinson's belt-tightening efforts is to come as the Executive enters the delivery stage. In October, the Government will announce the results of the Comprehensive Spending Round, the regular three-year review of public spending.

That will determine the largest chunk of money available to the Executive and should have a direct impact on Mr Robinson's budget, which will follow soon after. Tied into a new Programme for Government from the Executive, this budget - effectively Mr Robinson's first - will really begin to show whether there is a devolution difference.

The conclusion of his rates review and Gordon Brown's decision on a corporation tax cut (expected to be a no) will also set challenges for the Finance Minister. His second 100 days in office are likely to be far more telling than the first.

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