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The budget and welfare reform: Cometh the hour

Published 15/06/2015

Arlene Foster is determined to drive through the Budget
Arlene Foster is determined to drive through the Budget

THE old saying “cometh the hour cometh the man” (or woman) seems to be hanging over MLAs heads this coming week, as the Assembly enters into the last three weeks before it breaks for summer recess.

Will a dynamic, go-getter step forward with a plan that the rest of the MLAs will accept?

Will a compromise emerge to salvage the current mess? Will the impasse around welfare reform be shattered and a new light shine on the clouded thoughts of the Assembly?

Bookies are offering odds on the possibility of a resolution next week in the region of 1,000 to one.

DUP Minister for Finance and Personnel, Arlene Foster, will be asking MLAs to imagine, just imagine, that all their wishes had come true and they had all the money they needed, when she introduces Budget Bill (No 2) to the Assembly next week.

Sinn Féin, will be asking MLAs to imagine, just imagine that the Conservative Government will not cut the block grant, if we all speak to it nicely.

Both attitudes are in the realms of dreams. Treasury ministers can play hardball with the government majority (so far) intact. And, with a further reduction in its block grant anticipated, Norn Iron plc is likely to have a lot more “unfunded” budgetary pressure within its public services.

Yep – that is the stark reality.  There will not be enough money to pay for public services and the coffers could well be empty at some stage in the current financial year.

Members of the Assembly seem to have forgotten this, as they wrangle, posture, pontificate, plead, argue and flap around. To say it is like watching a car crash in slow motion is one way to think about it, but with PSNI and Fire and Rescue Service budgets cut, it is unlikely that there will be anybody to attend the car crash...

One is almost tempted to tell the MLAs that we, the populace, may not be happy with any final deal, but at least do a deal.

The consequences of not reaching agreement on the budget are immense. A senior civil servant could step in and cut all budgets by five per cent, resulting in a ‘zombie’ Assembly. We think this is probably an insult to zombies, who at least know what they want.

The Head of the Civil Service, Dr Malcolm McKibben, suggested that if an agreement wasn’t reached by mid-August, the whole deal on the “voluntary exit” scheme for the civil service, which is due to begin in September, was off. He did, however, say that he might still ask the Treasury for a ‘wee’ hand to get the scheme going, even if the other bits of the Stormont House Agreement don’t go ahead...

Danny Kennedy, Minister for Regional Development, may have faced a vote of no confidence in the Assembly this week, but it isn’t going to get the potholes fixed any quicker or see broken street lights fixed any quicker.

The Chief Constable has advised the Policing Board that there will be fewer officers on patrol.

Without the aid of a crystal ball, an abacus and a doctorate in advanced economic theory, I’m afraid I’m unable to offer a solution. But we know there has to be a solution from the Assembly or their already waning credibility will plummet further. With that, comes fewer people turning out to vote, fewer people wanting to engage politically and Northern Ireland being ostracised from mainstream political thinking; regarded as the problem child who should sit on the naughty step.

Of course, we can hope for something miraculous before the summer recess, but miracles require the suspension of the laws of nature and I can’t see all our MLAs acting against their nature...

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