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There will be blood

...and it will be the Executive's fault. Osborne's public spending axe isn't the problem - it's our politicians' inability to act as a team, says Owen Polley

The headlines were already written and politicians' responses long-prepared before George Osborne announced details of the Government's Spending Review to the House of Commons.

So the notion that poor, benighted Northern Ireland is to be mercilessly squeezed by the perfidious Tories was not unduly dented by the fact that we actually got off rather lightly, in comparison with the rest of the UK.

It made little difference that we can expect only a 6.9% cut to our block grant, while the average government department will see its spending constricted by 19%. Not even a cool £200m, stumped up by the Treasury to reimburse investors in the ill-fated Presbyterian Mutual Society, could draw poison from local attacks on the Chancellor and the Government.

Foremost among the critics are Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who allege that Osborne has broken a promise to deliver £18bn of infrastructure improvements to Northern Ireland.

That figure was thrashed out behind closed doors with Gordon Brown in the wake of the St Andrews Agreement, but Sinn Fein and the DUP believe that their backroom deal is binding.

Speaking on the coalition's behalf, Secretary of State Owen Paterson insists that the target can still be met - if ministers here are prepared to pull their weight. He points out that the Executive has been handed a number of levers to keep capital spending on-track.

Such faith in our politicians to take responsibility for their own difficulties is touching, but it is also naive, and it graphically demonstrates why we have a particular problem.

In truth, the cuts really will hurt us more in Northern Ireland and we really are unlikely to see the fruits of an £18bn capital spend.

That's chiefly because the Executive is incapable of providing decisive government.

Indeed, our power-sharing institutions are carefully constructed precisely to avoid reaching the type of difficult and divisive decisions which must be made when things get tough.

It's highly unlikely that the Executive will develop an effective strategy on cuts, or agree a responsible approach to gathering more revenue. Measures like introducing water charges, or raising the regional rate may be necessary, but they are deeply unpopular.

Sensible economic policies will be mooted, but the temptation to posture against them is likely to be irresistible as March's Assembly election draws closer.

Ministers have already spent the past few months ignoring Sammy Wilson as he urged them to prepare for difficult financial times ahead.

The East Antrim MLA was an unmitigated disaster as Environment Minister, but at the Department of Finance he has grown into his new portfolio and often seems like a lone sensible voice.

Now that the cuts are finally here, Wilson's promptings will grow more urgent, but, in truth, they are just as likely to fall on deaf ears as the crisis bites nationally.

The whole United Kingdom is on the brink of its very own culture war, inspired by an atavistic political hatred of Conservatives, harboured by elements within the unions and the Left.

Quite simply, there are too many people who are spoiling for a fight with the new Government.

It was almost impossible for the coalition to devise a route to recovery which would avoid confrontation. In Northern Ireland, the struggle has the potential to be even more rancorous, thanks to our own complicated national loyalties.

Contempt for the Tories will be exacerbated by other tribal resentments. Whether one chooses to blame 'the Brits' generally, or the English more specifically, will depend largely on political affiliation.

While, at Westminster, the Conservatives are obliged to co-operate with Liberal Democrats to ensure the survival of the coalition Government, our Executive does not stand or fall on its collective merits. That means that, rather than work together to mitigate the effects of cuts, each minister is likely to fight his or her corner independently.

Sinn Fein will resist spending constraints with special venom. The party is acutely sensitive to charges that it might administer a deficit-reduction programme on behalf of the Westminster Government.

The Shinners' unlikely 'good cop', Martin McGuinness, may keep his counsel, but 'bad cop' Gerry Adams has already slammed the "awful arrogance" of British ministers who dare apply nationwide cuts to Northern Ireland.

He remains resolutely oblivious to the fact that it is tax money levied on the British mainland which keeps our economy afloat - and Stormont in business - in the first place. If the people of Northern Ireland have reason to quake in their boots, it's not due to a 1.7% year-on-year cut applied by London.

The real worry is that the task of achieving that saving has been passed on to a group of politicians in Belfast who seem congenitally incapable of acting collectively or responsibly.

The Northern Ireland Executive is not a passive victim of the new economic situation: it has options. It can open new funding streams, privatise assets and strip back the cornucopia of quangos and commissions, bequeathed to us by the peace process.

The coalition Government has instigated the cuts, but in Northern Ireland, the buck stops at Stormont.


From Belfast Telegraph