Belfast Telegraph

Why Cameron's plan could send Planet Ulster into orbit

By Ed Curran

Dear Prime Minister. I doubt if you could have set a bigger test for the Northern Ireland Executive. With your Government spending review, you have planted an economic bomb under Parliament Buildings at Stormont.

The unthinkable worst-case scenario is that our fragile experiment in power-sharing might explode before your very eyes.

Almost a fortnight has passed since your Chancellor set out his plans and gave Stormont its homework for the days ahead. The midnight oil will soon burn in many a minister's office because each is faced with an impossible task of reconciling their economic ideology with yours.

What planet are our politicians on, your Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, asked recently. Prime Minister, this is Planet Ulster, inhabited by some very strange beings. Your spending review has had the effect of disorientating them and sending them into a potentially suicidal spin.

You must also remember that we beings who live on Planet Ulster are not governed by any modest two-party coalition like yours with Nick Clegg. We have five parties in the Stormont Executive. At times, they can behave as differently as black is from white, or should I say as orange from green.

For example, the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, says he wants a united Ireland, but you are asking him to play a key role and make huge sacrifices to save the economy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Peter Robinson may be more sympathetic to your wishes, but as First Minister he has had a difficult enough time in the past year without taking the rap at next year's Assembly elections for billions of spending cuts.

The 2011 elections for the devolved assemblies could not have fallen at a worse time, because the parties in power have nothing to gain and everything to lose if they are seen to be supporting, approving, or even acquiescing to your spending review.

We have been here before in Northern Ireland. As far back as 1974 and, more recently in 2003, the influence of Westminster has unsettled and unwittingly undermined the political process here.

The first ever power-sharing Executive was barely in situ at Stormont in 1974 when the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, fell out with the miners and called a General Election.

The Right-wing unionists opposed to power-sharing swept to victory, the Ulster Workers' strike paralysed the province and Stormont collapsed.

Fast-forward to 2003, when Tony Blair called an election just when David Trimble had nothing to sell. Result, goodbye Mr Trimble, enter Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. The 2011 Assembly election could be another such watershed if the parties at Stormont fail to play their cards right. Planet Ulster faces a winter of discontent, disenchantment and probably another impasse at Stormont.If the Labour Opposition at Westminster would not implement the Government's spending review, how can we expect five very different parties to do so?

The reality is they probably won't and couldn't even if they wished to. The economic edifice of Stormont is shaky because your Government's spending review is highlighting such a level of incompatibility and a lack of common ideological ground as to render the Executive incapable of administering your wishes.

Most likely, you'll have to come over to Hillsborough for another crisis meeting or knock heads together in Downing Street soon.

Remember, Prime Minister: some of our folks on the hill are so far to the Left of you in their thinking that they make the likes of Neil Kinnock, Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn look like Tories.

Remember too: life on Planet Ulster is about political survival. I think I hear at least one Stormont minister screaming: "I'm a politician. Get me out of here."

Yours, Ed


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