Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 28 November 2015

Office of John O'Dowd a law unto themselves

By Noel McAdam

Published 12/08/2014

Education Minister John O'Dowd
Education Minister John O'Dowd

When it comes to power being shared out, the DUP priority has always been to grab hold of the purse-strings.

The d'Hondt mechanism ensures the biggest party gets first 'dibs', and the DUP has always gone for the Department of Finance since 2006. But Sinn Fein gets second choice and it has always gone for the same portfolio – education.

Education has been in Sinn Fein hands for years so it is perhaps little surprise it has become what the DUP's Simon Hamilton calls "an independent republic".

Even allowing for the 'silo' mentality which Stormont departments have long been accused of, education still appears to be a place apart.

Mr O'Dowd was the only minister who refused to come up with a 'savings delivery plan' and he is also refusing to give the go-ahead for a review of financial procedures, according to Mr Hamilton.

The issues between them have been brought into sharper relief by the pressures on departmental budgets and the stalemate between the two parties over welfare reform.

The last quarterly spending round proved a real test of the Executive in terms of how it would deal with the looming reductions to Northern Ireland's funding from Westminster.

The June 'monitoring round' – agreed a day before August –saw £78m of cuts agreed, although the DUP's health department and Sinn Fein's education plans were protected.

But with no deal on welfare, it means they really just agreed to put off more decisions on where to slash budgets until the next spending round in October.

Dealing with the impact of the Treasury's 'fines' over welfare reform is the next major hurdle. London will be taking back what the Treasury reckons we should have saved through its changes to welfare.

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