Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Cameron's blue-sky budget cuts need the hard sell to our MLAs

Dear David, I noted that in your opening remarks outside 10 Downing Street you talked of "building a more responsible society in Britain".

You begin with the great advantage of a relatively peaceful Ireland, north and south.

No British Prime Minister in the past century has inherited such a politically united Northern Ireland as we have today. Unfortunately, that does not mean there is unity of purpose on the economy.

Northern Ireland has its share of people and politicians who like to ask about their entitlements. True, we do have more in need than other parts of the UK. We have suffered a lot. For whatever reason, we live now in the ultimate dependent society.

Northern Ireland needs a kick start; it needs new ideas and measures to grow private investment; major pruning of the public and civil service and of the cost of administrating the province.

The civil service needs to be shaken out of its comfort zone. We need a vision for the future not simply more of the past.

You should not be afraid to experiment. Maybe a cut in corporation tax will work. Maybe it won't. But we will never know unless you exercise your fresh authority and test the waters.

I suspect if you asked each member of the Executive for their views on the way forward, they will give you different answers. It should be in the interests of nationalists to reduce our dependency on the British state if their aspiration of Irish unity is ever to be realised.

It should be in the interests of unionists to make themselves less dependent, if only to ensure the goodwill of the British tax-payer and guard against a future break-up of the UK.

The reality of life here is that neither unionists nor nationalists reflect any such wisdom.

Northern Ireland bears signs of an old-fashioned, pre-Berlin Wall Eastern-bloc state. Yet our 18 MPs - including Sinn Fein, whose MPs don't even bother to show up at Westminster - are united in stopping you imposing any further cuts.

Now I can understand Sinn Fein not wanting to make any contribution to Britain's economic recovery, but what about the rest of them?

For example, those unionist diehards who profess their deep and abiding loyalty to Queen and country: what do they see as their contribution? I would like to be a fly on the wall at Stormont when you ask the First and deputy First Ministers how they intend to help out the UK in its hour of grave economic crisis.

You face an uphill task. For example, four of the 13 Executive ministers don't even recognise Westminster's existence. Gerry Adams professes he can simply do as he has done so often in the past: by-pass Westminster and drop into Downing Street to get his way.

All this puts his unionist partners at Stormont in an intriguing position. As you know to your cost, they opposed tooth-and-nail your comments about the Northern Ireland economy. The truth is that Northern Ireland has too many civil servants, too many quangos, too many publicly-funded bodies. It has an Assembly of 108 MLAs and 26 district councils with more than 500 councillors.

Devolution could be a nightmare for you. So much power is ceded to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff that the MLAs who inhabit those assemblies are unwilling and unable to deliver what you require.

Many people here believe it is their birthright to get nearly £10bn from London every year.

Money from Brussels, money from London, money from America or wherever we can attract it - Northern Ireland exists on a grant culture. We have an under-funded health service in comparison to England, but would any one here pay more taxes to close the gap? Would they ever.

You face an immense challenge in the poorer regions of the UK. We need to climb out of our lethargy. Somehow, your new coalition Government needs to help us to stand on our own two feet rather than spend our lives licking the bootlaces of Britain.

Give us the chance to have more tax incentives for private enterprise. Give us corporation tax reductions and an enterprise zone. Capitalise on our well-educated labour force. And bring the public services to heel.

But be warned. You may have swept aside New Labour, but the blue sky of David Cameron's Britain is still a long way from the leaden clouds over Ulster.

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