Editor's Viewpoint: Stormont's malaise an embarrassment
Every set of economic figures which emerge get worse and worse, especially here in Northern Ireland.
Unemployment, at nearly 61,000, is at its highest level since 1997 and almost one quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds cannot get a job. Inflation last month rose to 5.2%, as huge electricity and gas price rises were factored into the index. With winter ahead there is little doubt that many households will struggle to keep warm due to the high energy costs. Food prices are also increasing, creating another strain on family budgets.
Given this dismal background one would expect the devolved administration at Stormont to be striving its utmost to bring some glimmer of hope to a beleaguered region.
This newspaper has consistently censured the administration for its sloth in bringing forward a programme for government and makes no apology for again pointing out that it will be several months before a programme is agreed.
As well there appears to be no coherent or overarching plan in place to stimulate the economy.
At this stage congratulations are in order for Invest NI for its plan to give loans to companies which cannot access equity. Around £50m will be in the pot and this could be a lifesaver for many small businesses currently experiencing cash-flow problems but finding little sympathy from the bankers. The scheme should be operational within three months which is lightening speed for any government initiative and shows the sort of forward thinking which should be replicated throughout government.
However there is little indication that the Stormont administration is doing anything other than reacting to crises when they emerge. It has to be accepted that global pressures and a global recession are beyond the influence of local politicians, but their job is to find ways of mitigating those pressures at this regional level. While there are tentative signs of recovery in other parts of the UK, the indices in Northern Ireland all point towards continuing gloom and stagnation.
What plans are in place to help those families facing fuel poverty this winter? What efforts are being made to get our young people into work? What incentives are being given to businesses to encourage growth? Is the regulation of the utilities sufficiently tight? Addressing these questions would assure the public that the politicians feel the pain of ordinary families.
There is no doubt that in other regions of the UK the politicians would be facing increasing anger - perhaps even protest marches - for its lack of apparent efforts to date. We were told that a devolved administration would be more caring and more effective than direct rule.
We are still to be convinced that it is delivering anywhere near its promised potential.