Ian Paisley was not best pleased with Peter Hain’s criticism of the Northern Irish economy, noting caustically that it was in New Labour’s charge and that any shortcomings should be laid at that particular door in Westminster, and not with the local parties. Nevertheless, Liam Clarke puts it rather differently:
With Hain, both nationalist and unionist strategists can see which way the wind is blowing. If there isn’t a devolved power-sharing administration, there will be a steady drift towards shared decision-making with Dublin and cantonisation of local government. The economy will be trimmed down then plumped up, to make Irish unity more attractive both for the people of the province and voters in the republic.
The bottom line is cutting the £60-a-week subsidy that the British exchequer presently pays to each man, woman and child in Northern Ireland by increasing the local tax base and cutting back on public-sector employment. At the same time, the push is on to build up manufacturing and knowledge-based industries so that the province can stand on its own feet. This is Britain’s default position and Hain isn’t afraid to pull economic levers to advance it. However, if Stormont is restored, local politicians will have an opportunity to influence the direction of policy.
This a rather more subtle reading than the one once (but rarely heard these days) commonly espoused by nationalist commentators, which imagined the next big stick to be used on ‘unionist rejectionists’ was a smartish move to joint authority.
The British withdrawal described by Clarke here is not political. Indeed, it is simply be how things would have to be were the political (and fiscal) imperatives of London given their head. Withdrawal of direct subsidies from the Exchequer has for a long time been a primary objective of direct rule ministries.
In reality, this is probably no more than what Northern Ireland will have to do if it is get out from under the huge burden of a massive public sector. So are the days when the Tory direct rule minister Richard Needham could boast that he saved Northern Ireland from the most traumatic effects of the Thatcherite revolution, coming to an end?