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Stormont budget: Difficult decisions have to be taken to move forward

Liam Clarke

Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, hit the nail on the head when he said that this draft budget was the best deal available. The three smaller parties might not agree. Alliance and the UUP abstained on the budget after seeing their departmental spending slashed and the SDLP voted against it.

All three have a point but the larger context is that a difficult decision has been taken, and the DUP and Sinn Fein deserve credit for that.

Of course taking the decision isn't the end of the matter. The parties who remain in government, and none has left so far, now have to implement it in the least painful way possible for their constituents. It must be a case of taking the best decisions possible in the circumstances rather than holding out for some unobtainable objective.

If welfare reform is not rolled out at much the same rate as it is in Britain there is no doubt that we will face further fines and that they will make a mess of our budgetary projections. We will be back at the same point in a few months if we don't grasp this nettle as part of an overall agreement.

"Despite this reduced funding, Sinn Fein has worked to reach agreement on a budget for 2015/16 which defends core public services, particularly health and education, and protects the most vulnerable in our society against savage Tory cuts" Mr McGuinness said. He sounds like a man who is bringing his party round to pragmatic decision-making.

The fact that Sinn Fein agreed to this draft budget which has provision to pay back £87m in fines for this year shows that they are at length taking this issue seriously and accepting that we can't just ignore it.

The next step is to get into talks with each other and with the British, Irish and American governments next week. All the Executive parties will want to put pressure on Britain, and if possible the other governments, for more money.

They will also have to persuade the Treasury that, in the circumstances, they should be allowed to effectively sell off some capital assets to pay the bills. That is normally not allowed. They must also get permission to borrow from the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative (RRI) to pay for a public sector redundancy scheme which is fundamental to balancing the books.

Although yesterday's agreement was the best outcome in the circumstances, there is no doubt that we are still in a perilous position and tough choices will continue for some time. The cuts will be punishing and hard to implement.

However, it is a start; and is a good omen for the talks on the structures in Stormont, flags, parading and the past which should start in earnest next week.

At this moment of economic crisis the electorate will be looking to the parties to bite bullets, make more hard decisions and settle for the best available solutions.

That is what government is about. We have seen where stalemate and drift took us, now is the time to try something else.

Belfast Telegraph