Belfast Telegraph

Our new ministers face an uphill battle

Health Minister Robin Swann
Health Minister Robin Swann

Editor's Viewpoint

After three years of sitting on the sidelines, our new Executive ministers are learning quickly that actually taking control of events is a difficult task.

The optics yesterday were good, with the Health Minister announcing that nurses will get pay parity with colleagues in England and Wales and the Education Minister pledging £45million for school capital projects.

But it does not take much examination to see that these feelgood announcements are the tip of a much more uncertain public services iceberg.

The money to pay for the nurses' enhanced pay has been borrowed out of next year's health budget, with no indication of where further funding for additional nurses, cutting waiting lists or implementation of the Bengoa report will come from, or how much will be available.

Public expectation has been built up in the wake of the return of devolved administration, but the politicians know that unless the Treasury comes up with large additional sums of money - both initially and over the next few years - people's optimism will soon dissipate.

Our interview with new Justice Minister Naomi Long demonstrates what realpolitik at Stormont will look like in the coming months.

She candidly admits she cannot commit to increasing police numbers by 600, as frequently mooted. Nor can she guarantee officers will get the 2.5% pay rise their peers in England and Wales got last September because she does not yet know what funding will be available.

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Devolved government was restored on an understanding that funding to meet the needs of health, education and infrastructure would follow.

However, anyone who takes the assurances of this Prime Minister at face value is not a student of recent history.

Admittedly, former finance minister Sammy Wilson is realistic when he says that the man currently in that hot seat, Conor Murphy, should not expect the Treasury to foot all the bill. Funding negotiations don't work like that.

But Northern Ireland's situation is now so perilous economically - due in large part to the prolonged absence of political leadership - that these are exceptional times needing exceptional solutions.

All this will be a test of the cohesion and leadership of the new Executive and there will be many heated discussions as ministers vie for their share of whatever cake is available. There will be no hiding places.

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