Carrot of corporation tax, welfare reform, the draft budget and talk of reducing the number of MLAs at Stormont
With the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, dangling the carrot of a corporation tax decision ‘within weeks’, there seems to be a renewed impetus around the talks underway amongst the main parties here in Northern Ireland.
The focus has been on welfare reform and the draft budget but there has also been chit chat about reducing the size of Stormont.
And, then there was the presence of Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, Charlie Flanagan, who was at pains to point out that he was not interfering.
Perhaps with an eye to manoeuvring ahead of any resolution of any issues that may actually be resolved around Christmas, Sinn Fein were upbeat in their assessment of how things were progressing, with the word ‘hopeful’ used.
But the BBC headline of November 6, “Electoral Office starts recruitment of staff for 2015 General Election” may have helped focus the minds of the parties a little more, as the weeks until Christmas are ticked off the political advent calendar.
Certainly last year’s Haass talks debacle had more than a little bit of ‘pass the parcel’ about it in terms of blame; to have that repeated would not just damage individual parties, but would once more reinforce the perception amongst a large proportion of the Northern Ireland electorate that politics here is futile.
This could have a knock-on effect, not just on polling day, but on the engagement of people with any part of the political landscape.
Compounding the problem are the constant headlines about cuts, redundancies, stretched services and general economic gloom.
When even the Ulster Orchestra is in financial crisis you know things are bad....
Whether the thorny issue of welfare reform can be rescued as part of the talks package remains to be seen; although rumours that the legislation may come before the Assembly for full debate remains a possibility.
If agreement can be reached on welfare reform, it may alleviate some pressures, but our ever resourceful Northern Ireland Executive is already overdrawn on its overdraft.
And should the Treasury agree to devolve corporation tax, the quid pro quo will be another hefty reduction in the block grant.
Next week at the Assembly
It should be a lively week ahead, especially on Tuesday when the Education Bill has its further consideration stage; the last chance for members to make changes to this controversial piece of legislation. As with the debate on the Human Trafficking Bill, expect a lengthy session as the deluge of amendments tabled are subjected to scrutiny and voting.
In the committees, the farming community will be keeping an ear to the goings on at the agriculture and rural development committee, when it hears briefings on the Common Agriculture Policy.
At the education committee, members will be briefed by departmental officials on their response to the committee’s investigation into the Education and Training Inspectorate and School Improvement Process.
With the block grant much talked about the finance and personnel committee members will be paying close attention to briefings on the Barnett Formula used to calculate the grant.
In fact, this coming week you will find that committees have packed agendas, all of which contain matters about day and daily life in Northern Ireland rather than the noise generated by the current round of “intensive talks”.