Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Are these the people who really control Ulster now?

At their mercy: Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and George Osborne could have more influence on us than our Executive

The realities of devolution in a difficult world have begun to sink in at Stormont. The new Programme for Government announced last week is no panacea for Northern Ireland's serious economic ills.

Cobbled together by a coalition of diversity which is the Stormont Executive and hurriedly printed in the middle of the night, the programme is no less or no more than could be hoped for in the current climate.

Northern Ireland is a minnow swimming in a hugely turbulent worldwide pool.

All the euphoria of the Good Friday Agreement, of so-called peace dividends, and of a brave new world for one of Europe's most divided communities, has crashed to Earth. The global recession means we must take the pain with little or no gain like everybody else.

We must live within the means put at our disposal by the Government in London.

Direct Rule has gone but in reality direct rule still exists. Even Sinn Fein accepts Stormont is no more "Ourselves Alone" than any other corner of the United Kingdom.

This is no bad thing because we are now seeing the spokespeople for unionism and for nationalism owning up to their responsibilities and facing the realities of life on this island rather than perpetuating myths.

London has struck one of its toughest bargains in nearly a century of funding Northern Ireland. Not a penny more is George Osborne's axiom and he has applied his tourniquet just as tightly to here as to anywhere else.

For unionists, this should be a wake-up call. The good old days of unquestioned subsidies to Stormont have gone forever. The pennies are counted in the British Treasury with little regard for history or sentiment.

For nationalists, another message emerges from the ruins of this recession. Their aspiration of a united Ireland is fast becoming a pipe-dream and needs a swift re-think. The rejection of Martin McGuinness in the presidential election should have told them that. So should the Irish Government's failure to fund a new road to north-west Ulster. So, too, should the parlous state of the Republic with 300,000 unemployed and yet another round of public spending cuts announced last week.

What price the coming anniversaries of 1912 and 1916 as Northern Ireland and the Republic face the harsh economic facts of life in the 21st century? No doubt the plans are already being laid to remind us of loyalty to the British Crown on one hand and the rebellious war of Irish independence on the other.

A century on, reality is setting in across this island. The global economy has no regard for flying flags or displaying emblems. Neither pays the bill, nor stops the bailiff from Sean Quinn's door. Even Ireland's richest man bites the dust of bankruptcy while the wreckage of recession is strewn around us all.

Northern Ireland's Programme for Government is a provincial parochial document. Double-glazing 60,000 homes and offering pre-school education to three-year-olds, cutting local councils from 26 to 11 and creating a single education authority will not change the course of history be it of the 1912 or 1916 variety.

The Programme for Government shows up Northern Ireland's limitations. It may promise 25,000 jobs over the next four years but we have no surety we may lose even more.

We are at the mercy of a wider world where uncertainty is rife. One wrong move by a German Chancellor or a French President will have far more bearing on our lives than anything Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness or Enda Kenny can do or say in the next four years

Power-sharing at Stormont was never going to be easy. The world economy has brought challenges which no one could have foreseen when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The promise which devolution held out over Direct Rule is now tempered by the impact of a recession outside Stormont's control. The fortunes of Northern Ireland and the Republic have been tossed upside down in less than a decade by economic upheaval.

That said, Stormont still holds together. For that alone, we should all be grateful. Messrs Robinson and McGuinness have steered the ship past many an iceberg. Another long and arduous journey lies ahead, but at least the crew on board show more signs of pulling together.

Will the prison service remain Her Majesty's? Will the hunger strikers be revered at the Maze? Will the gable walls of Belfast continue to bear offensive murals? Such questions still pre-occupy some minds but they will not pay our bills.

Money - or rather the lack of it - is doing the talking above all our political differences in 2011.

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