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Stormont grasps budget nettle

It was the biggest decision that Stormont's political parties have had to take. Failure to agree on a draft budget would mean the inevitable collapse of the power-sharing administration with civil servants taking over the financial running of Northern Ireland. Today was the deadline for agreement and in the end it was a seemingly painless task, even if only the DUP and Sinn Fein ministers actually voted for the proposals.

Nevertheless it must be seen as a positive move that the parties have recognised the threat to devolved government and are keen to preserve it.

We now have a broad outline of what has been agreed and where the spending axe will fall hardest, but it will be Monday before we get to hear more of the detail when Finance Minister Simon Hamilton makes a statement to the Assembly.

And, as always, the devil will be in the detail. However, as our reports today reveal, the draft budget contains some hopeful thinking in a bid to plug some of the financial black holes in the proposals. For example, will the Treasury allow the Executive to sell off some assets to repay the £100m that ministers have just borrowed to tide them over until the new financial year?

There is no provision in the draft budget to continue to pay fines if the Executive does not implement welfare reforms. Is this a hint that proposals in the draft document to lessen the impact of the reforms will be enough to break the current impasse on the issue?

As well, there are proposals to raid a contingency fund for the pensions of Executive staff. This is a risky move which takes away a necessary safety net and which could backfire spectacularly if pension payments increase.

What is clear is that many services will be reduced or axed and that many jobs - possibly up to 4,500 - could go in the public sector. This is bound to cause uproar among the trade unions. Already health service unions are threatening to strike because of bed closures and reconfiguration of services due to financial pressures in the current financial year. Future years promise to be even more difficult. Agreeing the draft budget was commendable but it now goes out to public consultation which will give the politicians a fair idea of what the man in the street as well as vested interests think of their proposals.

And then early next year the parties will have to come up with firm final budgetary proposals. That will truly test their mettle.

Belfast Telegraph