Belfast Telegraph

Time to get your wish-list ready for the canvassers

By Liam Clarke

In case you missed it, the Budget rows have just segued seamlessly into the election campaign.

The release yesterday of the Alliance Party's draft legislative programme for the new Assembly neatly draws together many of the issues that will have to be dealt with after the election.

Some are shared by other parties; a few are more contentious.

First for the Budget. Like a medieval map, the draft we have is still dotted with blank areas marked "here be dragons" ready to spring out after the election when the new ministers take up office.

It hasn't been settled, but the fights over money and the rights and duties of smaller parties in the mandatory coalition will soon shift from the floor of Stormont to the hustings.

The timetable runs like this: the final Budget debate will be towards the middle of the month when, unless someone slays the dragons first, the SDLP and UUP will either abstain, or vote against it.

Sinn Fein and the DUP - the big guns who are working increasingly well together - will push it through anyway, denouncing the smaller players as whingers, not up to the responsibilities and hard choices of government.

The smaller parties, for their part, will have shown they can't be pushed around and will go into the elections with a few principles to stand on.

On that note, everyone with a ticket will be off to Washington for the St Patrick's Day festivities, which have now moved beyond shamrocks and green beer to include several days of lobbying for investment and aid.

With any luck, Peter and Martin will be able to bring back a promise or two from the land of the free.

Expect them to dangle possible reductions in corporation tax to entice US corporations to base European operations in the Enterprise Zone - as Northern Ireland is now being branded to investors.

Let us wish them luck; we need something to work. But, either way, once they have returned, it will be but a short hop until the Assembly breaks up on March 25.

Then attention will quickly shift to the new one.

Alliance isn't the biggest player in town, but at moments of crisis it acts as a kind of glue to hold things together.

It would, for instance, have been hard to get a justice minister if David Ford hadn't been prepared to accept the ministerial Skoda.

Alliance's legislative programme sets out, in summary, Bills to cover the gritting of footpaths, the levying of corporation tax, mutualising water, promoting shared housing and 20 other subjects.

They propose mutualisation of Northern Ireland Water so that it would effectively become a co-op owned by its customers - like Dwr Cymru, its successful Welsh equivalent. That idea is shared by the DUP and SDLP, so it has a fighting chance.

In a sense, the Alliance programme is a wish-list which they haven't the numbers to push through, or so the other parties will argue.

However, a wish-list, or a check-list of any kind, is a handy thing to have when you are going into government.

And it is also a useful list of real issues to ask politicians about when they come canvassing. It won't be long now.

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