Belfast Telegraph

Will Cameron be Grim Reaper of the public sector?

By Lindy McDowell

It was one of the jokes patronising comedians would use to snipe about how backward we were in this place. Pilot to passengers on board flight to Northern Ireland.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be landing at Belfast International Airport. Please place your seats in the upright position, fasten your seatbelts — and turn your watches back 100 years.”

The punch line being — as the rest of the world embraced the future, we were the throwbacks still fighting some ancient battle over religion. Of all things.

In retrospect you could argue that we were actually way ahead of the pack. These days half the world seems to be up for a rerun of the Christian/Islamic clashes of the Crusades. So actually we were market leaders with our inter-communal sectarian set-tos.

We may even have been ahead in political trail blazing. Over at Westminster they’re only now getting round to power-sharing. And years after we got ours, Downing Street has finally acquired its own version of the Chuckle Brothers

Except that there’s not a whole lot to chuckle about these days. Dave Clegg and Nick Cameron have inherited from nuked Labour an economic time bomb that sounds like a bad credit card ad

Winning the Euro lottery — £84.4m.

Topping the Sunday Time Rich List — £24.25bn. Estimating the UK’s current debt — £1,790bn.

Being left a note from the outgoing government that reads “I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.”

Priceless.

So whatever happens in the months ahead, of one thing we can be certain. This is going to hurt.

And the economic Eyjafjallajokull is going to hit us all. Not least here in Northern Ireland where we already know from something he let slip previously, nice Mr Cameron envisages a scything of the local public sector.

There’s no doubt that the public sector here could do with considerable pruning. The trick though will be in identifying the real areas of waste — not laying into the likes of low paid public servants who do real and valuable work.

It goes without saying that we’d all want to see the NHS spared cutbacks. As with education there’s an argument for more money (albeit with a more common sense focus on where that money should be spent).

Areas where we could bear considerable belt-tightening? Our symbolism budget for a start. That’s all those millions forked out enthusiastically to projects which are little more than symbols, sops (and nice little earners) to what the paramilitary community would call “former combatants”. Their very own, very lucrative “peace dividends”.

Then there are the legal aid millions shovelled out annually to lawyers who regard £150 an hour (twice what pensioners get in a week) as a pittance. Of course there has to be a legal aid system. But let’s have one which reflects the real world.

Speaking of which — consider all those millions of public money paid to finance cases claiming infringement of human rights and invasions of privacy by the sort of thugs who previously have infringed other peoples human rights and invaded their privacy — by murdering them.

Is this really a justifiable use of cash that could be going to hospitals, schools, the poor?

There is a sense that our peace process is built on shaky foundations which have been artificially bolstered by large wads of notes from the public purse.

Can the process stand the withdrawal of all this feel-good financing? We may find out — but only if Dave and Nick are brave enough to scythe into symbolic spending in order to spare real services.

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