Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Hard decisions unavoidable at Stormont

Yet another day goes by with agreement on a budget among the parties at Stormont as seemingly far away as ever.

Of course there is a degree of grandstanding going on, with Sinn Fein opposing a cuts budget and other parties blaming Sinn Fein for the delays in getting a draft funding programme drawn up. But the brinkmanship is testing the patience of many in the community, not least Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, who lashed out at the republican party which had staged a protest during his visit to Londonderry.

It has to be remembered that the Executive does have a working budget at the moment which will continue to be the basis of spending plans until the end of March. What the parties are arguing over at the moment is what level of austerity measures will need to be implemented to cover the planned cuts in the Northern Ireland block grant. With local government and Assembly elections looming early next year, the parties are nervous at voter reaction if the cuts are seen to hit frontline services too severely.

That, however, is the price of grown-up politics. All parties for decades complained about the deficiencies in direct rule and the lack of a sympathetic touch from ministers who had no stake in this region. Now it is their turn to make the hard decisions. While the Chancellor may have forced their hand with his review of public spending, it is up to Northern Ireland ministers to make the most of their lot.

They cannot continue to prevaricate. They have to decide if they can raise additional revenue through measures like unfreezing rates, ending free prescriptions or free public transport for the over 60s or introducing water charges or some other novel initiative.

If not, then they have to live within a reduced budget and decide where the priority spending areas are — most notably in health and education. These are decisions which cannot be stalled any longer without the parties attracting well-deserved derision.

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