Fionnuala O’Connor railed against critics of the current settlement (subs required) in Northern Ireland yesterday. It’s not clear exactly who she was referring to, but there are several interesting developments that have come to a head because, however imperfect the institutions may be, decisions have been made largely because our previously responsibility-free politicos, have been forced (or are about to be forced) to make decisions. The most prominent is the forever vacillating Education Minister, who is being edged (excruciatingly) slowly towards compromise with her Unionist colleagues. The other is the Minster for Finance, Peter Robinson whose upbeat announcement that he will work with the Unions to formulate an improved offer to low paid civil servants. This has been going on for 38 years. But in recent years the catalyst for a local resolution may well have emanated from legal actions in England. As the Guardian reported nearly two years ago, the Unions were being threatened with legal action from some of itheir members:
…a small group of no win, no fee lawyers are suing the union over the equal pay deals already struck by union branches in parts of the country, threatening to cost the union millions of pounds in payouts. The union faces more than 900 claims by lawyers contesting the union’s equal pay strategy, which name some of the activists at this week’s conference.
The bill for settlement is £100 million. That’s a lot of money, particularly when you consider that of Northern Ireland’s £18 billion budget only £9/10 billion is marked as ‘discretionary’ expenditure as opposed to ‘mandatory’. If it were delayed for the conclusion of what are commonly interminable Labour Tribunals, some sources believe it could rise by as much as £20 million a year.
Brown has little scope for funding it from Treasury funds since he’s just shelled out £2.3 billion to cover himself on the cut of the 10 pence tax rate. So Robinson is taking all the pain now, just as his own watch on Finance continues. With falling property prices, he may have to sell off a fair amount of the government estate just to bring this low paid group up to scratch.
Despite the spin, it’s unlikely to be a decision he’s taken either lightly, or willingly.