Why does Executive keep shirking the tough decisions?
Published 20/09/2011 | 08:00
First it was no water rates for Northern Ireland. Now, the province's local students are to be spared a major increase in university tuition fees and 30 towns and cities will escape parking charges.
The dispensing of such largesse by Stormont executive ministers begs the question as to how they can achieve it? How can they pull so many bunnies from so many hats with the UK economy in a parlous state and the rest of Europe seemingly on the point of economic collapse?
We know the health service here is at budgetry breaking point. Cuts and closures of medical services are inevitable. NHS unions are jumping up and down in anger and planning strike action. Other public services such as education are also facing severe cutbacks. Unemployment in Northern Ireland stands at more than 7% or 60,000 people.
Still Stormont ministers confound us. We may be subsidised to the hilt by the British Exchequer but unlike our friends across the water and thanks to Stormont, we can avoid hefty water rates, increased tuition fees and parking charges?
Four years have passed since the last Stormont Executive ruled that we should pay nothing for water and the new team promises another four years of the same. The revenue from water rates would have amounted to hundreds of millions.
The disparity in university tuition fees across the UK is cause for concern and possible legal redress. There is something profoundly unfair about students paying different tuition fees depending on whether they live in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or England. Even worse is the fact that students from other European countries, including the Republic, have preferential treatment compared to UK students.
Direct rule from London was sometimes unduly autocratic and dictatorial but devolution can be a recipe for pandering to popular local opinion.
It may encourage politicians to take the view that if people don't want to pay more, don't ask them to. For example, we don't want water rates but is that okay in the current economic climate? Is it really fair that while other public services are hitting the budget bumpers we can still turn on our water taps and fill our boots for free?
Obviously university students and their parents don't want to pay extra tuition costs, so we don't dare incur their wrath by asking them to do so. If the shop-owners in our towns and city centres claim increased parking charges will damage their businesses, then why argue?
The general public applauds but do we really appreciate that the more generous Stormont appears to be, the more money must be found from another more obscure corner of the public services, and all the better if a storm of public protest can be avoided?
Devolution runs the risk of encouraging politicians to pander to popularism rather than offer decisive leadership. Stormont's closeness to the community has many virtues but our politicians must do more than reflect and follow public opinion by their actions.
Too many MLAs and ministers rest astride their own parochial hobby-horses. In addressing the spending priorities in the current dire economic climate, they need to strike a balance between listening to the views of their constituents and taking hard decisions which will inevitably court unpopularity.
Politicians everywhere in the western world are facing this dilemma as the recession bites. For example, if it were left to the people, many of the very necessary draconian measures introduced in Greece or the Irish Republic or by the coalition government at Westminster might never have seen the light of day.
We need local politicians here to show the same courage. The people of Northern Ireland need to be listened to but they also need to be governed.
Pandering to popular opinion is too easy an option for too many MLAs.
Taking tough and sometimes unpopular decisions is what life is about in the current climate. Whether Stormont has the calibre of MLAs and ministers to measure up to this challenge remains questionable. We will find out for certain in the weeks and months ahead.
My own hunch is that Northern Ireland's economy is in such serious stuck that we should be paying water rates, increased tuition fees and parking charges and probably a lot lot more, if we are to maintain the essential services in education and health and employment which the province requires.