Belfast Telegraph

More cash has been secured but we can't plead poor mouth again

By Liam Clarke

It will take time to find the devils in the detail but, at first glance, this is a better deal than anyone predicted.

It completes Peter Robinson's legacy and has shook more money out of both Westminster and Dublin. However, it must be the last time we pull this trick.

It won't be credible to go back in a year or two and say we are broke again. We also have to weigh the immense cost, which is still mounting, of the long standoff with Westminster over welfare reform. It was around £2m a week and there were other debts.

Britain has coughed up £550m more, admittedly over a few years, to help us with issues unique to Northern Ireland.

It is more than a quarter of the £2bn which David Cameron yesterday pledged to counter the Isis/Daesh threat through special forces and intelligence officers.

That is for the protection of the whole UK at a time when the Prime Minister intends extending and intensifying his bombing campaign to Daesh's headquarters in Syria.

So £550m is the sort of sum of money the Treasury doesn't surrender easily but Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness prevailed on them. Some doing.

There is also nearly £77m from the Irish government for the A5, but that must be match-funded by Stormont.

Loans of £700m are also being made available over four years rather than six. They won't be spread so thin but they still have to be repaid. We are now getting into spending commitments by Stormont. They promise to top up cuts in welfare and tax credits.

They have appointed a very creditable person, the benefits campaigner, Professor Eileen Evason, to oversee this process.

Despite that the money is finite, it comes at a cost to other budgets here and it is unlikely to protect us from all the cuts George Osborne, the Chancellor, plans.

We have got a rate (12.5%) and a date (April 2018) for reducing corporation tax, but that will also cost us dear.

We need more details on any allowances we are getting, for instance if other tax revenues rise, to see how good a deal it is on this point.

What it will allow us to do straight away is to start pitching for US investment.

Senator Gary Hart has a list of companies willing to attend an investment conference here, some reputedly ready to commit.

Paramilitary activity has also been dealt with.

MLAs' Pledge of Office will contain a passage committing them to removing paramilitary structures. Only a cynic would point out that Sinn Fein previously pledged to do its best to see the decommissioning within two years, but the process took seven years and we are now told that some weapons are retained.

This time, though, the parties' moral efforts will be supplemented by a cross-border taskforce with a budget of £50m, and the PSNI gets £160m over five years.

Yet, however we assess the costs, this must be the last such trip to the well.

It was ludicrous agreeing Stormont House last December, and then abandoning it in the spring.

Sinn Fein blamed more central government cuts but whatever central government hands down now we will find it harder to make the "special case" argument again.

Stormont's ability to play the poor mouth again is diminished because, in the recent talks, it refused to impose any new taxes here itself.

Prescription charges, water rates and a range of other taxes are payable in the UK and the Republic but not here. That makes it harder to argue that London should make up the difference.

If we go bust now, or even start sending up distress signals, it would damage confidence in our ability to actually pay for the planned reduction in corporation tax.

As Theresa Villiers said, this was mainly down to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. The other parties complain they weren't consulted enough.

The chances are that this won't be a five-party deal. At least the Ulster Unionists are likely to hold back and possibly the SDLP will too. It gives them something to campaign against Sinn Fein and the DUP on in the next election.

So the two big parties need to stick together on this. If the UUP maintains its present position the DUP will be the only unionist party in government with Sinn Fein.

Under attack from rivals, the big parties will need a tight relationship and a strategy to build trust if they are to hold their own in the next election.

The chances are they will have to do it without Peter Robinson who has now achieved his stated career objectives and has a conference at the weekend.

Belfast Telegraph

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