Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Is the Stormont ship of state sinking fast before our eyes?

By Ed Curran

Another week passes and the good ship Stormont sails into even more dangerous waters. Where it is heading nobody can be sure. The captain looks unhappy and the crew are somewhere below deck locked in their respective cabins. Not one, but several icebergs are floating on the horizon.

Will we have to pay water rates? How much more can be cut from the health service? What will go next? Beds, doctors, nurses, hospitals, or what? Where can ‘efficiency’ savings be found ? Do we need so much of this? Could we do with less of that?

The future of politics in Northern Ireland — and indeed in Britain and the Republic — is no longer about spending, expanding, investing more. The future will be about cutting, contracting and taxing us to the hilt.

Not since the austerity budgets of World War II have Northern Ireland’s finances come under more scrutiny or threat. The unquestioning past — when the money flowed from the Treasury in London to Stormont or to the Northern Ireland Office’s coffers — has gone.

The books are under examination at every turn. As a consequence, hardly a day passes without a row or a battle at Stormont over the financing of our public services.

Gordon Brown’s speech to this week’s Labour party conference is his last throw of the dice. Barring a political miracle in the months running up to the general election, we will be writing about Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.

We know that whoever is in power at Westminster needs to find huge savings in public spending, as well as much higher levels of taxation. Everyone of us is entering into an uncharted future where we will have to pay more for our |children’s education. More for health treatment. More even |for using our home computers with the new broadband tax |announced last week.

All of this promises a rough and extremely hazardous passage for the good ship Stormont. No wonder the captain, the First Minister has the demeanour of a worried man about him. He must know that the future is bleak on so many fronts. He is standing on the bridge supping from a large poisoned chalice and his party is taking the blame for so many of our current financial woes.

When Peter Robinson presented Stormont’s first major budget two years ago he announced a cap on household rates increases over three years and a freeze on water rates. In fairness to him |he wasn’t to know that the |economy was about to collapse in the worst recession since the 1930s.

Now we face the consequences — cut-backs in front-line services to pay for Mr Robinson’s largesse. It gives me no comfort to recall that I wrote in this column at the time, “The real choice you have presented us is simple. Do we want a freeze on our household rates, a delay in our water rates or a damaging squeeze on our health service?”

Mr Robinson’s giveaway budget ensured an early positive public attitude to the new Stormont Executive but as time as passed the mood has soured. Day after day we hear voices raised in disapproval particularly within the unionist community.

Now we find that the current finance minister, Sammy Wilson, is staring down a black hole into which he needs to throw almost £400 million and he hasn’t got it. The choice, as he puts it is stark: no water rates spells more ‘efficiency savings’ at Stormont.

That means fewer jobs in the public services, cuts in health, probably longer waiting lists for treatment, etc.

I think the budget of 2007 was short-term financial folly. It went down badly in the British Treasury because it sent out a message of profligacy. At a time when London was looking at ways of cutting back on the future subsidy to Northern Ireland, the first act of the new Stormont Executive was to give a huge hand-out worth £1,000 over three years to every home in the land.

The First Minister has good reason to look worried today. Whether Brown or Cameron is the next Prime Minister, the message from London to Belfast will be the same. Like the rest of the UK, we face years of austerity and because we depend more than anywhere else in the UK on the public purse and employment, we will be hit hardest.

That is not a promising outlook for a fledgling Executive at Stormont, which is currently in a state of paralysis and growing more unpopular by the day with the electorate.

In the old days, we could have blamed English, Welsh or Scottish ministers in the Northern Ireland Office for unpopular measures. As of now, and into the future, the buck stops on the hill at Stormont and there is little or no confidence that our local political leaders are up to the task? The message from London is that Northern Ireland has to reduce its level of dependency on public subsidy in the next few years.

This cannot be achieved without untold pain unless there is a massive increase in foreign investment or a major resurgence in private enterprise. Where is there evidence of this happening?

The more responsibility Stormont has, the more it will be blamed and the more likely the current experiment in devolution will falter or fail completely.

The Stormont Executive can only succeed if people see benefits flowing from it. That is not the case in the autumn of 2009.

The forthcoming general election is a political minefield for Northern Ireland. I fear it could become a platform for disenchantment with the peace process and politics in general.

Fewer people may vote and more of those who do could express their frustration with the current Executive by voting for those such as the Traditional Unionist Voice party who wish to destroy it.

That is precisely what happened to the much-heralded Stormont power-sharing Executive of Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt in 1974. The general election in the spring of that year was a disaster for both men and their parties. I hope history does not repeat itself in the spring of 2010.

The Executive needs to get a grip on itself swiftly.

The icebergs are looming closer. I fear the worst.

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