Editor's Viewpoint: Budget row turns into blame game
After all the wrangling and posturing - some of it purely with the forthcoming Assembly elections in mind - the Executive has passed its Budget for the next four years.
The SDLP and Ulster Unionists voted against the financial measures outlined, but knew anyway that it would be passed by the big DUP-Sinn Fein block vote. It was a protest without penalty and without any real effect. So now all the parties can look forward to this Assembly being wound up shortly and a blame game election campaign beginning.
While the politicians are well able to look after themselves in the inter-party disputes, there was another protest yesterday at Stormont which brought a human face to the new Budget. It is not all about huge sums of money and grand policies. The parents, teachers and pupils representing special needs schools are concerned that funding for music therapy - a vital aid to children with severe learning difficulties - will be axed. The amount of funding involved is relatively small, but the therapy, like so many other services in the coming four years, could find itself marginalised.
With cuts of £4bn in the overall budget over the four years - albeit with around £1bn of new money being found - there is no doubt that many of the things that we take for granted at present will be under threat. The contentious issue during the Budget discussions has been funding for health, with professional bodies and medical spokesmen all warning that waiting lists will grow, services will be axed, hospital beds may close and large scale NHS staff redundancies seem inevitable.
The Budget debate over the past few months revealed deep fissures in the power-sharing administration with the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists feeling both sidelined and pressurised to accept the results. There is a growing lobby for a change in the way the programme for government is formulated in the next Assembly. The best suggestion is that the parties should agree policies before handing over the various departments. Whether that will happen is anyone's guess.