Spending on NIO no longer justified
The Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, has made much play in recent weeks of how the Northern Ireland Office will see its budget cut by 25% over the next four years.
It is being held out to local politicians as a self-sacrificing measure which they should copy to stay within their own less reduced budget. It is a message which may play well at Whitehall, but an examination of the facts shows that the NIO is still a much grander edifice than exists in the other devolved regions of Scotland and Wales.
Much of the power formerly exercised by the NIO under direct rule is now in the hands of local ministers. It still retains responsibility for a range of matters such as elections, human rights, legacy and national security issues. To deal with those issues it has a staff of 176, vastly higher than exists in either the Scottish or Welsh offices. While it can be argued that its range of responsibilities is greater than in the other devolved regions, the differential is not sufficient to justify the much greater resources at its disposal.
Of course the NIO played an important role during the lengthy - and disjointed - devolution process in the province and was seen as part of the glue enabling the power-sharing administration to bed down. However, now, four years after the current administration came to power, it is time to rethink its role and scale.
It is no longer acceptable to plead that the fragility of the peace process requires some sort of grand oversight or enabling body. The real functions of the NIO could easily be carried out by a much reduced establishment. Indeed, the public expects local ministers to accept full responsibility for the running of the province and will hold them to account for any failings.
At a time of austerity it is difficult to justify spending over £20m a year on a body which has a limited role to play in the life of the province. Rather than an example of careful husbandry as some suggest, it is further evidence of public spending waste that must be curbed.