Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Ed Curran: Sammy's forgotten where priorities lie in his Budget

Ed Curran

It was one of those defining weeks for the human being who is me. There's nothing like a touch of ill-health to focus the mind and that is what happened me as I whiled away uncomfortable days and nights away from the madding crowd of Christmas.

Funny how swiftly pressing matters no longer matter. Draft Budgets, spending cuts, Wiki-Leaks, students in revolt - all became an inconsequential blur.

By mid-week, the medicine was beginning to have a positive effect and I was well enough to show an interest in the announcement of the Stormont draft Budget.

Sammy Wilson, the Finance Minister, was everywhere on the TV and radio.

He appeared to deserve congrats for achieving a near- impossible feat, but still I wondered was there actually more to this than Sammy was allowing to meet my eye?

Stephen Nolan and the economist John Simpson helped to change my mind. They dissected Sammy and his Budget on Nolan's morning show.

Sammy left many more questions in the air than he ever answered on air. I reached a new conclusion: the draft Budget was as clear as the foggy view from my bedroom.

Soon other experts began to unravel Sammy's Budget. What appeared to be Stormont's 'coming of age', or 'finest hour', was morphing into something far less impressive. The plastic bag Budget was exposed as a hastily cobbled-together, pre-Christmas mis-match of ideas.

It was as if someone had dumped a bag of toys in Stormont's Great Hall and allowed individual ministers, some still blindfolded, to choose and distribute them to the community at large.

Then I heard the most telling words of the past seven days - not spoken at Stormont by Sammy or any of his 107 MLA colleagues and ministers.

They came from John Compton, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Health and Social Services Board, also interviewed on the Nolan show.

Here is a public servant who does not waffle. A copy of Nolan's interview with John Compton should be sent to every home in Northern Ireland because, to my mind, it cuts to the quick and through all the sludge I've heard spoken elsewhere.

Where do our values as a society lie?

Do we want to cut 3,000 to 4,000 doctors, nurses and other staff in our health service?

Do we want our children, parents and grandparents to suffer a doubling of waiting-time to be seen for treatment?

Do we want our health service on the verge of bankruptcy, as Mr Compton suggested it could be in the next year?

All these things and more John Compton says will happen to Northern Ireland under the current Stormont spending agenda.

Clearly, our health and social services have not been 'ring-fenced', or protected sufficiently, otherwise a respected figure such as Mr Compton could not present such a stark prognosis. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems is that health - the key area of spending - is not in the control of one of the two main parties.

There is constant point- scoring directed against the department run by Michael McGimpsey, a minister from a minority party.

This petty politicking is a major flaw in the Executive, as is the fact that all the parties involved are already looking over their shoulders to see where support will come from for re-election next May.

I finished the last of my medicine at the weekend and set out once more into the snowy world beyond my front door.

Are we a bunch of hypocrites in Northern Ireland? We say our health service means everything to us, but Sammy's plastic bag Budget shows, yet again, that we aren't prepared to pay for it.

We would rather have no water charges and any other freebies than protect and develop our health service.

We talk a lot about what would make Northern Ireland a good place to invest and live in. I would suggest that being able to boast a first-class, possibly world-class, health and education system would be quite an attraction.

Both are under threat, but we could choose to protect them better than we are doing.

Sounds simple. Unfortunately, caught up in their own wee world of political survival at Stormont, ducking and diving around and against one another, that's not how our political leaders read it. May 2011 looms. Sad, really.

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