Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland power-sharing impasse 'preventing us getting our economic house in order'

By Staff Reporter

Northern Ireland will miss out on important economic opportunities if devolution is not restored, it's been claimed.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire this week extended Monday's deadline for talks between the two main parties to restore an Executive after the collapse of power-sharing in January.

Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist at the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, said Northern Ireland risked losing the opportunity to get its economic policy in order and tackle other deep-rooted problems if no settlement is reached.

While draft industrial strategy Economy 2030 had already been published - in one of former Economy Minister Simon Hamilton's final acts - not all policy elements were aligned with it.

Dr Birnie said: "Whatever the performance of previous devolution, if we cannot get it restored now we will certainly miss out on some opportunities - notably to radically overhaul the suite of policy statements in Northern Ireland.

"That's not just the budget but getting alignment with the Programme for Government and the industrial strategy.

"Northern Ireland faces some very deep-seated challenges - quite apart from Brexit, dealing with the long tail of educational under-achievement, restructuring healthcare, reforming public services and, above all, closing the chronic productivity gap.

"Now is not the time for a sabbatical in terms of active policy-making."

The economist pointed out legislation will now begin its path through Westminster for a Northern Ireland budget to be implemented for the 2017/18 financial year.

He warned that process marked a "creeping return" to direct rule but the implementation of a budget would allow the province's full block grant from Westminster to be spent.

Under present arrangements, with civil servants in charge, just 95% of the grant is available to them.

Dr Birnie also cautioned that other opportunities were being lost as a result of the political impasse.

He added: "What is regrettable is a loss of an opportunity to link together the NI budget with the developing policy statements such as the Programme for Government and the Executive's Industrial Strategy." In addition, he said the £1bn to be provided to Northern Ireland through the DUP's confidence and supply deal with Westminster, was still unspent.

And the absence of active decision-making by Executive ministers meant it was unclear when major issues would be resolved.

A deal would also help restore the province's image - or at least, reduce previous damage.

Dr Birnie said: "A further benefit will be the introduction of some local accountability into the process around agreeing an Executive budget for the year 2017-18 (though, given that the process is going to be very rushed it is likely that the Budget that we are going to get will have been somewhat pre-cooked)."

There was also the hope that a working Executive could give space for difficult issues to be resolved, including reform of healthcare and university funding - and identifying Northern Ireland's priorities in Brexit negotiations.

Dr Birnie added: "From an economic and business point of view a period of political stability would be helpful."

The return of ministers to their desks, he said, would enable spending to take place, particularly on infrastructure, which could in turn unlock some of the funding in the DUP and Conservative agreement.

Belfast Telegraph

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