'Fantasy budget': Stormont heads in the sand, hoping for the best
"This is the least irresponsible thing to do." The words were those of Alliance's Stephen Farry, the Employment and Learning Minister, as he defended voting through funds for Arlene Foster's so-called fantasy budget.
He is probably right. That is what most other parties felt too. But it is akin to sticking your head in the sand and hoping for the best. There is no pretending that we aren't in trouble or that this is likely to end well.
Yesterday Stormont voted through £8,336,067,000, so that we can keep spending until March. It's a fantasy because, as Jim Allister pointed out in an unsuccessful amendment, we actually have £600m less than that. This because of our politicians' inability to balance a budget. We are only pretending that we have passed welfare reform to allow this fiction to continue a little longer. The hope is that in the meantime something will turn up. The Government may give us a bit more. That is unlikely, and it seems an equally forlorn hope that the politicians can reach any sort of deal any time soon.
By setting a budget, even one with as many holes as a Swiss cheese, we can at least stave off the evil day when a senior civil servant steps in to top slice spending. Now it is possible that we will be allowed to go ahead with the Civil Service voluntary exit scheme.
If Britain legislates for welfare over our heads and Mr McGuinness resigns there seems little point in an election. All that will be left will be a prolonged period of negotiation under direct rule, probably with increased Irish Government involvement.
In other words, direct rule with a greenish tinge. Those are usually the circumstances Britain prefers to negotiate in - from a position of strength and with the Irish Government beside it.