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Stormont talks: In-trays are piling up for future ministers but that's still better than leaving it to Tories

A challenging start is certainly awaiting Stormont in the event of the talks producing a new Executive, says David Gordon

Business leaders met with party delegations yesterday to press again for the restoration of the devolved institutions.

But securing a talks deal might prove to be just the beginning of a very tough year on the Stormont hill.

The in-tray pile covers a series of major policy areas where action and direction are needed.

They include:

π Budget decisions for 2017/18 and beyond. As has been well documented, the last Executive fell without a budget in place. Civil servants are now in charge of the finances, under a stop-gap measure that keeps funding for departments and public services flowing. The current budget uncertainty has been linked to fears over job losses in the voluntary sector and funding for youth clubs.

Ministers ­- either devolved or direct rule - will have significant budget-related calls to make in the months ahead.

Northern Ireland's funding from London for day-to-day services is facing a cut in real terms over the next few years. That will mean hard decisions on stretching funding, imposing cutbacks and raising revenue - for example, through rates increases. Offering some level of funding protection for health and frontline education will mean pain elsewhere.

π Health reform. Pressures in health and social care provision continue to break out on a regular basis - waiting lists growing, under-pressure GPs talking about quitting the health service, staffing shortages threatening hospital units.

The major reform process envisaged under the Bengoa report published last October was the big hope for tackling the underlying causes of these problems. Progress on that process will inevitably be limited without a Health Minister in place.

Meanwhile, the funding pressures on health continue to stack up. Former health service chief John Compton last week warned of a potential £300m overspend in the system this year alone. And in an article for this newspaper he said the political impasse at Stormont "poses a very real threat to the functioning of our health and social care service".

π Education. The twin challenges of funding and reform are deep-seated in the schooling system too. Repeated warnings are being sounded about school budgets feeling the strain.

A potentially radical reform push was spelt out last October by Education Minister Peter Weir, with a view to ending composite classes in primary schools and tackling the issue of secondary schools that are "too small". That would have to mean some school mergers and closures.

He told fellow MLAs: "The challenge that faces almost all local government districts is that we have schools that are too small to adequately provide for their pupils and ensure that they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. I will say it again: this is something that cannot continue; the status quo is not an option."

Mr Weir is no longer Education Minister, but whoever takes over the role will have the same issue to grapple with.

π Brexit. Article 50 has now been triggered and Brexit negotiations can be expected to intensify significantly as this year progresses. Without an Executive, there will be no locally-elected Ministers involved in any formal Brexit dialogue or consultation structures. With an Executive, the challenge will be to maintain an agreed position spanning parties with totally opposing views on EU withdrawal.

π Higher education funding. Queen's University has warned of a £55m gap between the money universities in Northern Ireland need and what they receive in public and private funding. Stormont can bridge that gap by finding more money for the sector and/or increasing student fees. Neither option is pain free.

π Corporation tax. It's been admitted in recent weeks that the official 2018 target date for cutting corporation tax to 12.5% may "slip" amid the Stormont impasse.

It's a policy that certainly has its critics but is the closest thing post-devolution Northern Ireland has had to a big idea for the economy.

Getting it down to 12.5% by 2019 could be difficult enough, given the costs involved and the other budget pressures that will be piling up by then.

π Abuse victim compensation. In its report published in January, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry recommended that the Northern Ireland Executive "create a publicly funded compensation scheme".

The Executive was already well on its way to collapsing at this point and Ministerial decisions on compensation are still on hold.

π Abortion law reform. The Executive fell without taking a position on abortion law reform for cases of fatal fetal abnormality. An official working group had reported to Ministers on the subject, and had reportedly recommended changing the law to permit terminations in these cases.

π Welfare reform. A long and bitter Stormont stalemate on how to respond to benefit changes introduced at Westminster was finally resolved in 2016. A panel chaired by Professor Eileen Evason drew up a four-year £500m mitigations package to cushion claimants from cuts. Those measures are due to be reviewed in 2018/19, a process further complicated by more recent and controversial Conservative welfare reforms.

In an article for the Belfast Telegraph this week, Professor Evason wrote: "I have no doubt those working with the most vulnerable in our society are anxious to move forward but here, as is the case on so many issues, it is difficult to see how progress can be made without resolution of the current political impasse."

As with everything else, decisions on welfare mitigations will be constrained by budget pressures.

The stacked in-tray awaiting Stormont Ministers is hardly an enticing prospect for MLAs and their parties. But the alternative can be summed up in a single blunt question.

Would they rather leave it all to the Tories and direct rule?

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