Executive ministers meet today to debate pressing ahead with spending cuts or deferring the axe until next year.
An all-party ‘action team’ set up during an ‘away day’ exercise this month is expected to feed into the discussions on how to find an initial £128m of savings, with more to come. Their full report is not due until September.
The Stormont session will bring down the shutters on another political year with ministers then off for a month-long break. A spokesman stressed, however, they could come back in a crisis.
But, while further information from the Treasury on the next spending round is awaited, it appears ministers are likely to steer a middle path between the current financial year and next.
But the spending squeeze is already a political reality, with two Government departments putting a question-mark over 700 Civil Service jobs in the last week alone. How then can the last year of devolution be assessed?
With the last major piece of the peace process slotting into place in February — the transfer of policing and justice powers — the spirit of the Hillsborough Castle concord was that the Executive was now in delivery mode.
But since then the schools transfer debacle has continued, plans to save more than £400m over 25 years in council mergers have collapsed, parade reforms are at a standstill and there is still no public sign of the long-delayed ‘shared future’ strategy.
While there is no confirmation, the Cohesion and Integration blueprint could be signed off by ministers today, paving the way for a three-month consultation across the province.
Relations appear to have improved between the Stormont top two since last summer when Martin McGuinness accused power-sharing partner Peter Robinson of “spending too long in Disneyland”, a remark the First Minister described as “cheap and nasty”. The atmosphere remained frosty through the winter of discontent over policing which saw a further spat at the North-South Ministerial Council meeting.
But while the public perception may be paralysis, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister points out that just over 200 papers were cleared at Executive meetings over the year.
Achievements include a successful US Investment Mission securing projects involving HBO, Universal and the New York Stock Exchange along with funding for the Community Relations Council and victims.
Strategies involving children and the young, and the elderly, have been agreed and a Ministerial Sub-Committee on Anti-Poverty and Social Exclusion was set up.
Assembly Speaker William Hay also said MLAs are responding to the unprecedented public furore over the Westminster expenses scandal, which has had knock-on effects at Stormont.
But Mr Hay also argued it has been an “historic” year in which the Assembly had embedded itself firmly in the political life of Northern Ireland.
Apart from its primary function of forming legislation, with 13 bills including establishing the Department of Justice, Assembly committees published 35 reports.