Owen Paterson: “This is absolutely pathetic…”

The Northern Ireland Executive met on Thursday, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing.

Not that there aren’t plenty of items which are, or which should be, on their agenda.  Most pressingly the still-to-be-agreed draft NI budget.

And as economist Neil Gibson told the Assembly this week

“I want to be clear that what’s in front of us is challenging,” [Mr Gibson] told members of the Finance and Personnel Committee.

“I don’t want to underplay how hard it’s going to be to make savings, but it shouldn’t be catastrophic.

“The amount of money we have in Northern Ireland coming in, even by the end of this four-year period, should still be more than enough to run world-class public services.

“Most other countries and certainly regions in the UK would be delighted to have that level of revenue.”

The two parties jointly occupying the Office of the First and deputy First Minister have been happy to talk about the issue elsewhere.

Even middle-ranking party members are at it.

And the lower ranks have taken to waving placards at the NI Secretary of State – who continues his interventionist strategy.  Owen Paterson’s latest intervention is here.

But as Jim Fitzpatrick points out, like those protests, it all seems a bit stage-managed…

Failure to agree a budget would be a crisis worse than anything else this Executive has faced.

The statutory measures that would come into place then would allow Stormont to spend just 75% of the available money – at which stage the tough Tory cuts become extreme Executive ones.

For that reason alone, it can be said with an even higher percentage of certainty than Basil McCrea would predict for dissident capability that a budget will be agreed.

Everything else you see and hear between now and then is largely political posturing. And it’s posturing which suits the two big parties.

When a budget is finally agreed the detail of it will be lost in the thanks and praise showered upon the parties for “making tough choices for the good of the country”.

That would depend on how well-behaved the witnesses are…