Seismic shift on agenda as Stormont moves goalposts
'No party which has signed up to the Stormont House Agreement can plausibly present itself as a protector of the public sector in any jurisdiction'
The Department of Regional Development was quick out of the blocks last weekend to challenge Ukip MLA David McNarry's claim to the Belfast Telegraph that Translink and NI Water could be put up for sale as part of the financial package agreed at Stormont House.
"There are no plans to privatise either NIW or Translink," a DRD spokesperson responded - which fell some way short of an assurance that both will stay in the public sector.
A member of the SDLP talks team explained that "the sale of assets had been mentioned in negotiations, but not specifically the sale of Translink and NI Water".
Mentioned in negotiations? "Agreed during negotiations" might be more accurate. Paragraph 11 of the Stormont text lays down that all departments will "consider how best to realise the value of their capital assets through reform or restructuring to realise income and longer term savings".
The point of principle has been conceded. Public assets are to be made available for sale to raise funds to cover budget shortfalls or Executive expenditure generally. There may be debate about the timing or the terms and conditions of this or that sell-off. But it's too late now for the parties involved to try to pull back.
The fact that Translink and NI Water were not specifically mentioned is neither here nor there. They'll be up for grabs if the price is right - the right price being determined, of course, by whatever firm of consultants is hired in at huge expense to handle the transaction.
Much has been made of the provision whereby the UK Government will "monitor" progress on implementation of the spending aspects of the Agreement, with a view to giving the Executive a clip on the ear or removing pocket-money privileges if there's any foot-dragging. But it may not be the Government itself which bends the Executive over its knee if doesn't pass muster on cuts and privatisation.
The key passage on finance and welfare reform is contained in paragraph five: "The Executive will adopt in January 2015 a comprehensive programme of Public Sector Reform and Restructuring which will... address structural differences (and) reduce pay bill costs, such as a reduction in the size of the NICS (civil service) and the wider public sector... An independent strategic review of public sector reform conducted by the OECD will report by the end of 2015."
The OEDC is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, comprising 34 member states and operating from a headquarters in Paris, with regional offices in Washington, Berlin, Tokyo and Mexico City. The OECD's underlying ideology is contained within its 50th anniversary mission statement issued in 2010, two years after the banking crash: "Today, we are focused on helping governments around the world to restore confidence in markets and the institutions that make them function."
The unit most relevant to the North is the OECD Working Party on State Ownership and Privatisation Practices, which "facilitates policy dialogue and information exchange between OECD Member countries and key partners on improving corporate governance of state-owned enterprises and implementing privatisation policies".
This body will be marking the Executive's homework at the end of this year to make sure that the privatisation process is proceeding satisfactorily. Its role will be analogous to that of the "Troika" which has effectively dictated economic strategy in the South for the past four years.
No party which has signed up to the Stormont House Agreement can plausibly present itself as a protector of the public sector in any jurisdiction.
Against this background, McNarry - significant that it has been left to the Assembly's sole Ukipper to make the point - was being tentative in mentioning Translink and NI Water as candidates for privatisation. Potential buyers are already circling the Housing Executive's 80,000 homes. Property magnates are running their eyes over public buildings. The prospectus for Belfast Harbour has been printed. Green fields and forests will be next on the list.
These are by far the biggest changes agreed at the Stormont House talks - not very difficult, perhaps, when nothing was agreed on flags, parades and the past other than the creation of new bodies to try to reach agreement. The thing is, though... the talks were convened precisely to discuss flags, parades and the past. Welfare reform, privatisation, job cuts - these were not on the table at the outset at all.
So, no real progress on any of the matters which the parties had come together to try to resolve. But a seismic shift on other matters entirely.
A cynic might speculate that some of the parties took advantage of talks on matters to do with the "peace process" to cover their acceptance of measures which they had pledged to their electorate they would never contemplate.