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Eilis O'Hanlon

Why would anyone in Northern Ireland seriously trust the parties in government with control over their wallets?

Eilis O'Hanlon

The quality of debate being had in the Executive about how to balance the books hardly bodes well for the future, writes Eilis O'Hanlon


First Minister Arlene Foster and (right) Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

First Minister Arlene Foster and (right) Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill


First Minister Arlene Foster and (right) Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

It's taken a while, but the First and Deputy First Ministers have finally found something on which they can wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, what seems to unite them is an eager desire to get their hands on everyone else's money.

Appearing on the BBC's Sunday Politics on Sunday morning, Sinn Fein's deputy leader Michelle O'Neill couldn't have been clearer that her immediate aim is to have revenue-raising powers devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive in order to plug the very considerable gap between what the Assembly wants to do and what it can afford.

The Deputy First Minister's suggested pathway to get there was through a commission on tax powers, in fact she said the new Finance Minister is going to set one up forthwith, though she was less clear about how to make ends meet in the meantime, because commissions by their nature tend to take time.

The inquiry into the cash-for-ash scandal is only now at the end of its deliberations. Deciding whether the Executive should be able to raise money, let alone how it should do so, would presumably be a much bigger undertaking. It couldn't possibly be done before the current Stormont term runs out.

O'Neill isn't wrong to say that a proper analysis of how Northern Ireland can self-fund improvements in public services is long overdue. Scotland has already taken on a number of revenue-raising powers and the Welsh Assembly now has an agreement that the first 10p of every pound paid in income tax stays in Wales. Consideration has even been given to allowing regions in England to become more self-funding.

Since the aim in all these cases is to make local government more accountable, it makes no sense to leave Northern Ireland out of the same conversation, especially since all the political talk around the Assembly right now is about money, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

First Minister Arlene Foster was banging that same drum on the BBC's Inside Politics a few days ago when she suggested that increasing tuition fees might need looked at again to plug the funding shortfall for universities.

Asked about that possibility on Sunday, Michelle O'Neill said she hadn't discussed it with the DUP leader, but that it wasn't on.

She said, "let's look at being creative" instead in terms of finding ways to raise money, but, in the absence of any new ideas, all eggs seem to have been put in the basket of this week's meeting between Conor Murphy and the British Government.

In the more-than-likely event that Boris doesn't bung a few extra bob our way, there's little the Executive can do. It has extremely limited powers to raise or borrow money.

Isn't there a bigger unanswered question underpinning this whole argument, though? Even assuming that the Executive got the power to raise revenue locally, why would anyone in Northern Ireland seriously trust the parties in government with that much control over their wallets?

When she was asked by the BBC's Mark Carruthers for the cost of mitigating tuition fees so that they don't have to rise to the same exorbitant level as in England, O'Neill admitted that she didn't actually know the current cost.

Further asked about Sinn Fein proposals to raise rates on the most expensive houses, she also conceded that members of her party "haven't had those kinds of conversations" with the DUP, which opposes the proposal.

If they're not even talking to each other about these things, what on Earth are they talking about?

With nowhere left to go, Michelle O'Neill predictably opted instead to blame Northern Ireland's problems on, you guessed it, "Tory austerity".

If this is the quality of debate being had in the Executive about how to balance the books, it hardly bodes well for the future.

There have been a number of independent studies done into how Northern Ireland could raise additional revenue, and they have unanimously concluded that, out of all the various tax powers which could be devolved, the only one with the potential to raise the significant amounts of money needed is income tax, and the problem there is that, whilst raising the rates on higher earners is politically attractive to parties of the Left such as Sinn Fein, there just aren't enough rich people in Northern Ireland to fund everything the Executive wants to get done.

The studies all agree that only an increase in the basic rate of income tax would bring in the huge amounts needed - and without wanting to state the obvious, that's unlikely to be popular.

There's also the problem that the UK Treasury may seize on any extra revenue raised locally as an opportunity to cut back the annual block grant to Northern Ireland, thereby requiring even more money to be squeezed out of local pockets.

God alone knows what the Executive would spend all this money on anyway, unless it's Irish language signs nobody needs, Ulster-Scots helplines nobody calls, or another job lot of special advisers, who are special only in the sense that they seem to be exempt from the rules under which everyone else has to operate.

Politicians may love spending other people's money, but that doesn't mean they're any good at spending it wisely, and they're definitely amateurs when it comes to understanding how to get the golden eggs without killing the goose that lays them. Arlene Foster certainly didn't seem to be considering the needs of already debt-burdened students when she casually threw out the suggestion of increasing tuition fees.

The other problem with giving the Executive finance-raising powers is that there would be no accountability whatsoever. There are only five Members of the Assembly who are not in government. All the main parties are part of the club, so who would be left to hold them accountable for the money that they raise and the way they choose to spend it? People's money would effectively be held hostage by the Executive, with little chance of ever paying the constantly increasing ransom.

Before being given such sweeping new powers, the Executive needs to demonstrate that it can sensibly manage the money it's already been given.

After three years without an Assembly, during which time the dysfunctionality of the old one has been shockingly exposed, it doesn't inspire confidence that the very first item on the agenda when ministers return is how to wangle more money from the people whose trust they've abused.

There's an irony here, which is that giving them tax-raising powers would, over time, arguably make them more responsible in how they spend public money, but they've not yet proven responsible enough to take the risk that it wouldn't quickly go pear-shaped.

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