Editor's Viewpoint: Real government here starts now
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has done us all a great service by spelling out in unmistakable terms the hard times that we all face in the very near future.
Put at its simplest, Northern Ireland is facing the most severe cuts in public spending since the 1970s. His speech was as much a challenge to his Executive colleagues as a warning to the rest of us. It will be up to them to decide where the axe must fall, and how a diminishing block grant can be divided up. For practically the first time since the 1960s, a government made up of Northern Ireland politicians is faced with the prospect of real governance. Ministers will have to take hard decisions without fear or favour, and will have to explain them to their paymasters - the taxpayers.
Mr Wilson pointed out one immediate, and hitherto unpalatable, decision that will have to be taken. In his view, water charges can no longer be deferred. That is a real political hot potato, but the outcome seems inevitable. However, quite rightly, he stressed that the politicians must get their own housekeeping budgets in order before asking householders to pay more.
The Assembly will have to examine the huge cost of governing what is a relatively small region. Do we need 108 MLAs, 11 departments, a huge Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, numerous quangos, and an army of consultants to examine every policy decision? Environment Minister Edwin Poots is attempting to raid local government coffers by asking the 26 district councils to pay the full £118m bill for the reform of local government. He has set an unrealistic deadline of a week and, instead, there should be a full, mature debate on the issue.
There also needs to be clarification from Westminster if the health budget here can be ring-fenced as Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is demanding. Or is the budget here so large proportionately that such a demand is untenable? If it is to be cut, then the consequential diminution of services must be explained fully.
The power-sharing Executive faces a challenging future, and the public will expect Ministers to seek innovative ways to alleviate the impact of public spending cuts, including potential tax varying measures and ways of boosting the private sector and investment, like a reduction in corporation tax.