Budget splits show Mad Hatter’s tea party at Stormont will continue

Comment on the Northern Ireland Budget depressingly illustrates the gap between the politics and what matters far more, the policy. Political chatter flows easily from the keyboard, policy analysis is something else and is presumed to bore readers and the TV and radio audience. I don’t know what it does for you but concentrating so much on the Assembly politics of it all  fails to impress.

Who seriously believes that many votes in May will be won or lost on the basis of Budget votes? You could say I suppose that the creation of an opposition would offer the people a democratic choice but what do the UUP and SDLP stand for together? What sort of alternative do they constitute? Apart from a few polite comments about each other under attack from the DUP or SF, they have signally failed to create a dynamic centre. And even if they’d done so, would people flock to vote for it in May, cross transfers and all? No, I fear the present Matter Hatter’s Tea Party of an Assembly system in which  everyone wins prizes has a lot of life left in it yet.

Sammy brazened out an obviously political Budget strategy. But a few salient points might be borne in mind.

The £432 million extra “ found” is smoke and mirrors, bits of internal accounting beloved of finance ministers.    

  A “ four year budget” is purely a device not set in stone. They can revise the whole business every year if they want and they probably will at some point. Their paymasters the Treasury certainly will.

The elephants in the room are the absent water charges and higher rates recommended in phases by every expert in the place ,  which are ducked  for purely political reasons.

Business comment in the form of a  muted response from the local branch of  Institute of Directors laments the lack of economic strategy.   

John Simpson, very politely as usual, offered some other options last month and delivered a quietly damning informed verdict on the whole shenanigans.

 Moving current spending to capital is appealing but it, along with less revenue from rates, adds to the severity of the squeeze on Invest NI and the health service.

Larger capital funds, raised in other ways, could help the construction sector and ease other problems. The options include being prepared to copy the Scottish idea of a mechanism to permit some significant capital projects on a non-profit basis, financed by public private partnerships or a variant as a form of contractor finance.

Alternatively, a scheme to take the capital assets of NI Water into a defined separate non-profit enterprise so that it could borrow funds commercially would, when operational, release funds currently diverted from other programmes.

The process has become a ‘health versus the rest’ challenge, partly because the Executive has, indirectly, raided health to subsidise current and capital spending on water. The health budget argument reflects no credit on the whole budget debate.

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