Robinson: Big government is not a long term option…

One of the most fascinating developments in the early stages of the Stormont Assembly is the central role being played by Peter Robinson at the Ministry of Finance. Negotiations with each of the ‘spending ministries’ have (apparently) been comprehensive and thorough and have continued throughout the summer. David Gordon heard the Minister speaking to his former colleagues at Castlereagh Borough Council, where he outlined some of his ideas (they should be familiar to long term readers of Slugger):

“We succeeded in making significant improvements through the negotiations leading to devolution but there is still more to do. While I understand that it may be necessary to build confidence in the process before more radical changes can be delivered I hope that change will not be too long delayed.

“A four party mandatory coalition with no effective opposition is not in the best interests of decision making in Northern Ireland. Eleven government departments to administer the province is about twice as many as we need and the community designation system is no basis for tackling community division in the longer term.”

It’s been a song in the Robinson repertoire for some time. Yet given the interdependence between the two main parties, he will need Sinn Fein to go along with his downsizing plans. With the climate in Britain cooling on further increase in further regional subsidy, a substantial downsizing might be welcome by both Labour and Conservatives.


  • Nevin
  • Frank Sinistra

    Under d’hondt

    6 ministries – 2DUP, 2SF, 1UUP, 1SDLP
    5 ministries – 2DUP, 1SF, 1UUP, 1SDLP

    I could see the shinners going for the idea with the six model and the DUP suddenly going off the idea.

  • The Dubliner

    “Yet given the interdependence between the two main parties, he will need Sinn Fein to go along with his downsizing plans.”

    Or else haggle over tired horses like two traders at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair, with PSF offering a lame horse called a Bill of Rights for a Shetland show pony from the DUP called qualified majority rule? If the final Bill of Rights contains the socialist doctrine that PSF are injecting into it at the Forum, then PSF get a de facto socialist state which the DUP are free to try to run by free market principles (in order to pay for the burden inflicted on the taxpayers by the socialist dogma in the Bill of Rights). The DUP might figure their cherished majority rule is worth it, and nationalists might be persuaded by PSF that the Bill of Rights removes their concerns about majority rule being used by unionist rule at Stormont to abuse their human rights.

  • Sean Fear

    Currently, public spending is about 71% of GDP in Northern Ireland, a figure which is unsustainable for very much longer.

  • The Dubliner

    Frank, there is an old saying “If you think it is expensive to hire a professional, try hiring an amateur.” There is an optimal size of government that it isn’t safe to fall below if you want to have a wide range of talents around a cabinet table, usually a dozen or so. Five or six people simply aren’t enough. Although that may not be applicable at Stormont without collective responsibility and a cabinet, of course! But assuming that Robinson’s ultimate aim is a model of the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy or a cabinet and an opposition, his proposed reforms of government departments are counterproductive to that aim.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sean, the Times figures have it down very slightly to 70.5%

  • Greenflag

    ‘Currently, public spending is about 71% of GDP in Northern Ireland, a figure which is unsustainable for very much longer. ‘

    You could also reasonably infer that Northern Ireland’s fragile political peace is not sustainable without such a high figure . Catch 22 .

  • Sean Fear

    7. I don’t agree. Public spending at that level stifles the private sector (and depends on transfer payments from the South of England that won’t be coming through indefinitely). A Northern Ireland with a flourishing private sector would, IMHO, be a good meal more stable politically than it is now.

  • Greenflag

    8. Full marks for the obvious 😉 But how do youget from a figure of 70% to say 35% in a fragile political environment like NI ?

    In the worst days of the Republics mid 1980’s economic crisis public sector spending did not go above 42% of GDP IIRC .

    The transition required in NI will be of the order of what some of the former communist countries of eastern europe went and are still going through .

    At the very least longer term political stability and social cohesion are needed to make such a transition . Qualities for which Northern Ireland is not noted ?

  • Nevin

    Meanwhile, the Cheeky Boys wine and dine some blue chip US business leaders.

  • IJP

    Again, Robinson is very good at the talk of small government – how good will he be at delivery?


    Probably best if the Government isn’t appointed by d’Hondt then, isn’t it?

    Oh, and we’ll get rid of the Juniors too, btw.


    71% is too high and bad for NI – and you’re 100% correct!

  • Sean Fear

    9. Keep the rate of growth in public spending below the rate of growth in output.

    It’s ridiculous that public spending should be at the same proportion of GDP in NI as it was in 1994, when the local economy has grown at a rate of 2.5% p.a. since then. Of couse, given that it hardly grew at all in the previous 20 years, 2.5% is nothing remarkable, particularly as NI has a relatively young, and well-educated workforce.

  • Sean Fear

    You certainly couldn’t go rapidly from 71% to 35% without very steep cuts in public spending, which would be destabilising. There’s no reason not to aim to reduce the ratio of spending to GDP by, say, 1% a year.

  • Greenflag

    ‘There’s no reason not to aim to reduce the ratio of spending to GDP by, say, 1% a year.’

    So you think that the globalised world and it’s competitive investment and consumer markets is going to stand still while the Northern Ireland economy takes 35 years to catch up with the rest of Europes developed economies ?

    With an ambitious goal like that you might want to consider joining the Liberal Democrats (they’re looking for a Leader whom they hope will become Britain’s first Liberal Prime Minister since Lloyd George sometime around 2042 AD 🙂

  • Sean Fear

    A reduction of 35% would take it well below the European average, which is around 46%.

  • Greenflag

    46% seems high for a europe wide average .I’d have thought 40% would be nearer the average. It’s a moot point anyway the economic challenge facing Northern Ireland is beyond the present capacity of it’s political leaders to address given their powers. .