Austerity can unite rather than divide the Assembly

I find myself picking up on Ed Curran’s column again. This week he fears a fresh Assembly crisis over the cuts.  In an open letter to David Cameron he claims

You have planted an economic bomb under Parliament Buildings at Stormont.

And goes on to say

The 2011 elections for the devolved assemblies could not have fallen at a worse time, because the parties in power have nothing to gain and everything to lose if they are seen to be supporting, approving, or even acquiescing to your spending review.

Ed places the 2011 elections in a similar category to the previous debacles that sunk the first power sharing executive in 1974 and Trimble in 2003. But  today is surely quite different. The very existence of a local adminstration was in bitter dispute on those occasions due to self harm. More recently, the parties got over their particular hump between 2006 and the Great Sulk of 2008-9. While stability can’t be taken for granted they may even see off a crisis over a possible SF first Minster from what I see and hear.

Might they yet implode over the cuts and hand the whole thing back to London? I don’t see it. It was internal division that stymied them in the past.  The one thing that always unites them isspending British taxpayers’ money, even if they think there should be more of it. They can equally comfortably unite in blaming the Brits for ” betrayal” over the St Andrews “deal.”

But even here the foot seems to be off the accelerator. Last Monday’s emergency debate in the Assembly was hardly sparkling but at least all parties went out of their way to call for a united approach and Peter’s breakfast speech this Monday was accorded a cautious welcome by SF. They all realise  they have to agree a budget by January, well before the elections. The whole community will be in the same boat, unionist and nationalist working people included.  On this there is no basic sectarian split.

Ed concluded by addressing Cameron:

Most likely, you’ll have to come over to Hillsborough for another crisis meeting or knock heads together in Downing Street soon.

But what could he say? All three devolved areas received similar treatment. In the key quadrilateral negotiations with Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander he heard what they had to say but promised nothing. In spite of the theatrics of their public reaction, the outcome did not come as a surprise. Sammy admitted as much. Comment that assumes the Prime Minister is hanging on every move in Stormont is way off the mark. In a sense, that’s to the credit of the parties. The glory days of NI exceptionalism are over. Those like Ed and me who grew up in them had better get used to the new era – which despite fresh problems,  is a whole lot better than the past.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London