Belfast Telegraph

Across the UK everyone is taking about increased devolution of powers from Westminster...all except Northern Ireland

By John McCallister

Right across the rest of the United Kingdom - Scotland, Wales, London and other cities, the English regions - everyone is talking about increased devolution of powers from Westminster.

There is a growing UK-wide consensus that if we want to see dynamic government which will promote economic growth, significant powers have to be devolved down to the regions.

Everywhere, that is, except Northern Ireland.

Here, it is almost as if the major political parties are conspiring to ensure that Northern Ireland is left behind.  On the one hand, Sinn Fein is living in political fantasy world, forcing the Executive into a budgetary crisis. On the other hand, the DUP has been the only party in a devolved government in the UK arguing against devolving down more powers.

I will admit to having considerable sympathy for the First Minister and the Finance Minister, faced as they are with the ridiculous stance taken by Sinn Fein. What I cannot understand, however, is the rejection of additional powers to Stormont.

Now, yes, if we are talking about more powers for Stormont, we do have to significantly reform how Stormont works. This means ensuring that there is an official Opposition, moving away from the architecture of tribalism, and placing a collective responsibility duty on Executive ministers. Without this, more powers would get caught up in the web of dysfunctionality that we now see in Stormont.

But the flip side of these reforms is increased powers, particularly over tax and fiscal matters. Without these powers the Assembly will remain a toytown parliament.  And, what is more, Northern Ireland would become a second class region in the UK, as the other devolved regions use their increased powers to promote economic growth.

Without the increased powers, politics here will carry on as it presently does.  One reason why Sinn Fein can get away with its reckless stance on spending more money than is in the Northern Ireland budget is because they can fall back on that old excuse of Northern Ireland politicians - it's all Westminster's fault.  Westminster is to blame.  Westminster has to sort it out.

That safety-blanket needs to be pulled away from our political class.  If we want Stormont to raise its game, to act like a real regional parliament, it has to know that the buck cannot be passed to Westminster.  The way to educate Sinn Fein in the real world of government is to make it face up to the real responsibilities of governing.

At present, it's as if the Executive is the teenager driving the parental car and not worrying about reversing into the neighbour's car, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. Not to matter, the parents will pay up. Or, in this case, Westminster.

The best way to introduce the careless teenage driver to the real world is to make them foot the bill - make them responsible for the costs of driving. Suddenly, reversing into the neighbour's car takes on a quite different perspective.

It's another reason why Stormont needs more powers devolved, particularly fiscal powers.  Until it happens, its too easy for the political class to pass the buck, avoid the hard decisions, and - as with Sinn Fein - pretend that its possible to spend money that isn't there because, when it goes wrong, it's Westminster's fault.

How to change things? Make sure the buck stops at Stormont. How to do it? Devolve fiscal powers to the Assembly.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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