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Editor's Viewpoint

No easy choices for hard-up Executive

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Education Minister Peter Weir

Education Minister Peter Weir

PA

Education Minister Peter Weir

Another day and another minister unveils his estimate of the extra money he needs to make his sector work properly.

This time it was Education Minister Peter Weir, who said he needed an extra £400m to address a teachers' pay dispute, improve special needs provision, boost schools' operating budgets and finance a childcare strategy.

No one disputes the minister's figures - a schools system in which children bring in toilet rolls must be close to its uppers - but who is he addressing?

It is no use telling the Northern Ireland public unless he is making excuses for not being able to revamp the system, and the Treasury doesn't seem to be listening.

The flaw in Mr Weir's argument, as with other ministers who have complained about a shortfall in funding, is that the main parties struck a deal to go back to Stormont without any copper-fastened funding agreed.

Sympathy for politicians is scarce, considering they were absent from their posts for just over three years.

What the public wants to see is action. Excuses don't wash anymore.

The politicians know they are getting an extra £2bn, £1bn of which was coming anyway under a review of the funding for the UK regions.

Their job now is to use that money as efficiently as possible, with feasible priorities set in the programme for government and a timetable for work set out to keep the public informed.

The onus is on politicians to ensure, unlike in previous years, that no money is wasted or spent on initiatives which are more of a luxury than a necessity.

They will also have to show courage and leadership.

Will the Executive have the courage to close a hospital if that is required to streamline the ailing NHS? Will tough decisions be taken on amalgamating small rural schools so that they become fit for purpose? Will there even be a debate about whether Northern Ireland can afford duplication of education systems?

What ministers have to come up with are strategic visions, not just a list of pet projects into which ever increasing sums of money are poured.

After all, this is a relatively small province of 1.8 million people. It is unrealistic to expect Rolls Royce-level public services on every street corner.

Hard decisions will have to be made. That will be the acid test of the new Executive.

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