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.

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  • pauluk

    The UUP and SDLP are behaving like a bunch of spoiled children who are trying to make themselves look important and relevant.

    Instead of working together with their ministerial colleagues to deal with the problems, they are more interested in posturing and attempting to score a few political points before the upcoming elections. What a petty little group.

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s a different thread Paul. Brian’s point is that all this concentration on the power plays at Stormont are distracting from the reality of what’s going on there. That it’s a shorthand for ‘move along now, nothing to see here’.

    The underlying reality is much more interesting, as Brian’s John Simpson quote reveals:

    “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.”

  • pauluk

    Mick, if my comments belong to a different thread, what is Brian’s second paragraph doing there?

    Bottom line is: the UUP/SDLP antics have all to do with trying to improve their image and relevance, despite the ‘underlying reality’ of juggling the books or robbing Peter to pay Paul.

  • Fair Deal

    “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.”

    The basis for that claim?

    Government revenues have been raised in the budget. For example the freeze on the regional rate has ended.

    Also unemployment is up. Fuel costs are up. Cost of living is up significantly (with high inflation expected to continue for at least another year). Pay settlements are down and pay freezes will be the order of the public sector for the next few years. It is simple practicality, people don’t have the money for even more taxes.

  • Surely the point is that many of us actually voted for this in the Good Friday Agreement. True, we were supposed to have different parties and deep down, most peoples objections to the Mad Hatters Tea Party is really that they dont like the people involved in the two main parties.
    So for me the Politics (bad) versus Policy (good) argument doesnt work. In a matter of weeks we all have the chance to do it again. And we probably wont change.
    Are the voters impressed? No.
    Will the positions taken up by say the SDLP & UUP actually make a difference?
    Well for a start theres two different dynamics around those parties.
    And 18 constituencies.
    But more so we are dealing with a centre left party in the SDLP and a UUP which is variably centre right and right. Not sure how anyone could conduct a left or right Opposition around them. Or even (taking right and left out of it) a moderate non sectarian centre.
    But a non sectarian political centre (including the AP) isnt actually “politics” at all.
    Indeed the DUP leans to the “right”
    Sinn Féin leans to the “left”.
    So whether its the “Constitution” or “Politics” SDLP has more in common with Sinn Féin than it does with UUP.
    And UUP has more in common in “political” terms with the DUP than it does with SDLP.
    Less than two months seems a very short time to to talk about a re-allignment and no doubt well meaning people will declare themselves “Conservative” or “Labour” on Nomination Day.
    But their parent parties in London disown them or keep them at arms length. David Camerons discovery of his long lost UUP relatives in the Conservative Family was a disaster. Well we have all met relatives we would rather not know. They turn out to be embarrassingly racist or homophobic or sectarian.
    And Ed Miliband did not bother much (at all?) with his estranged Labour Family just two days ago.
    But we DO actually have an example of Labour and Conservative going “head to head” in Norn Iron. As recently as 2007 they stood against each other in South Down along with 14 other candidates.
    They finished 15th and 16th and eliminated on 1st & 2nd count. And these non sectarian transfers went to moderates? or maybe fellow lefties or righties?
    Well Labours 118 votes 27% to Green & AP..37% to SDLP and 20% to SF.
    And the Torys 434 votes went to moderates?
    Well no. Greens and AP got 19%…..DUP 29%, UUP 25%.
    Labour and Tory here really do no more than subsidising the sectarianism they seek to change.
    Tom Elliott and Margaret Ritchie wont be calling on supporters to give SDLP and UUP their #2 preference. Their hard core membership might well want to hear that. But it wont happen……just bland statements to vote for the candidate who is closest to SDLP or UUP principle.
    Which brings me back to South Down….where Sinn Féins terminal transfers went 97% to SDLP and 3% didnt transfer.
    And where DUPs terminal transfers went 88% to UUP with 10% not transferring.
    Now those are actual voters…….NOT Party members.
    Whatever their relationship in the Assembly Chamber or at Executive table or even at an election count centre it is impossible for SDLP or SF to portray themselves as enemies to the wider voting public.
    And impossible for UUP and DUP to portray the other as an enemy.

    Will the strategy adaped by SDLP work?
    With apologies to UUP I dont understand their motivation and they seem more lethargic and less focussed than SDLP.
    It strikes me that they have analysed the election will be won or lost in a handful of marginal seats. So they are playing hardball and frankly as Corporal Jones might say “Sinn Féin dont like it up them sir”. Ritchie & Attwood seem to be making ground.
    But this election will be fought in marginals and on the margins…..the students, the trade unionists, the campaign lobbies, the “new” voters, the poppy voters. They arent just phopt opportunies. They are not just about principles. There is a strategy. Very small numbers in terms of votes. But thats the whole point.

  • Mick Fealty

    Agree with most of that FJH.

    Consider too that the UUs are even further conflicted in that we have Red UUs versus Blue UUs.

    Whilst I don’t think we’ll see much in the general outworking of results I cannot think Minister McGimpsey’s seat is entirely safe from a fresh DUP assault. Which may in turn have contributed to his shrill defence of his own position in cabinet.

    The truth is we are not likely to get clarity on policy precisely because what the parties actually stand for will be always be fudged by the need to find broad consensus, and we as voters cannot do to the government what the Republic’s voters have done to theirs.

    Does it lead to good government? Well to answer a rhetorical question with another rhetorical question: Was it ever meant to?

  • Cahir O’Doherty

    Good post FJH, kinda sums stuff up nicely!

    And Mick, your rhetorical question lends itself nicely to a recent quote by Margaret Ritchie (I saw it on the BBC website, but now can’t find the link) which was something along the lines of ‘Devolution and the GFA was supposed to give NI good government’ But of course good government comes from the parties, not from the institutions…

  • Brian Walker

    There you go again, obsesssing about the sidebar of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Any thoughts about the budget, a growth strategy etc instead.? At least fair deal believes all it well.

    Yes fitz, we know it is a system that recognises the primacy of the sectarian divide and forces the two sides togther only at government level. Its weakness is that the parties opt for the lowest common denominator of policy for fear of being outflanked by a rival on their own side or across the divide – meaning that any move for a modest rise in local revenue is unlikely to be made. As for the unemployed and the unskilled, they shed crocodile tears only. For as long as they have their wee party fights, society can wait – and it could be a long time,.

  • Thank you Mr Fealty, Mr O’Doherty.
    Ive never been entirely convinced about Red UUs and Blue UUs. For generations the old Unionist Establishment patronised some working class politicians. But do they really have any clout?
    In a parallel universe Fred Cobain might have got the Heysham ferry and settled in London and become a labour MP for a South London constituency. And Kate Hoey might have stayed at home and become a Unionist MLA (or more likely wife of one) in North Belfast.
    But ultimately theres nothing really there.
    Red & Blue isnt the fault line.
    Theres a liberal unionist (always a beaten docket) wing and an Old Guard but there is something more ….a generational gap between people like Basil McCrea and John McCallister who give the appearance of actually belonging in the 21st century and people who are still living in 1950s.

    Michael McGimpsey …I fully take the point that he is not safe in South Belfast and I think we could agree that the UUP selection process in South Belfast indicated a nervousness on his part. But rather unfortunately for a Health Minister with a “savage” or “limited” cuts package, he is actually representing a constituency which has a high percentage of health service staff living in it….Musgrave Park, Belfast City Hospital and the various QUB facilities. Nor can it help that one of the SDLP candidates/MLA (McDonnell) is a Doctor. Nor can it help that the SDLP is the only Party that can be seen as a serious champion of the public sector worker (including the NHS).
    Of course for public consumption in a divided society, nobody at Unisons HQ in York Street can actually endorse the SDLP position…but Id think the officials there have the SDLP on speed dial. (small margins).

    Mr O’Doherty is right. There is nothing wrong with the institutions….except of course the wrong people are in charge…..put there (curses!) by the electorate and not chosen by the liberal dissidents.
    If the UUP-SDLP lost the governance of Norn Iron it was as much to do with a complacency. The pendulum will swing again. This time? No. Not completely.
    I once asked a leading liberal dissident if “AV Voting” was about keeping out the extremists and he simply said “yes”. A stunning example of “cute hoorism”.
    As Ive said ……I find the UUP ….harder to read. I dont know what they are up to. Neither do they.
    Will the SDLP strategy succeed.? I dont know.
    Signs seem good. And theyve invested a lot in the margins….for example their East Belfast candidate is from Poland. It might not win them a seat in East Belfast…..but as well as the principle……which all reasonable people would welcome, there will be a knock on effect.

  • oops …the cat pressed the send button.
    The success or otherwise of the SDLP strategy is measured by seats won in May.
    Below 16…failed.
    Just 16….ok.
    17……better than ok.
    18……two executive seats.

  • Mark McGregor


    Spit it out. You seem to have a problem with those not bringing in further flat rate taxes to a population already facing reduced wages, higher costs, curtailed services and increasing unemployment

    As the north’s assembly can’t affect British taxation or make business pay its way, it seems you are suggesting some form of utility tax to pay for ‘expanding’ the health sector.

    Why aren’t you arguing for a wealth tax? Because you won’t face the big arguments either?

  • Brian Walker

    Mark, Why do the old Irish thing of assuming darker motives than those already on the page and then build a fictitious house of cards upon it ? Water charges with many exemptions and some higher rates ditto are affordable andseem to me to be the least worst option. The budget doesn’t balance across the four years, meaning further cuts later. Look at ther Republic where even Fintan argues for a local property tax.My main objection is the lack of transparency. These issues arent’ being argued ou properly.

  • tinman

    These issues aren’t being argued out properly.

    Or, indeed, at all. Reminds me of the old Batman TV show – thwack! kapow! – except that Robin had more considered policy positions. And wore his underpants outside his trousers (pace Sammy Wilson).

    To respond to Brian’s original point, politics is way ahead here, with policy getting a 4th preference vote at best. Health is a case in point: as far as I can tell, the parties’ health policies at this moment in time are “spend more on the health service” versus “spend less on the health service”. But neither of those is actually a policy – how do we know how much we should spend on health unless we know what kind of service we want: how many hospitals, what level of home care, what length of waiting lists, etc.? I have yet to see any party (UUP included) actually deal with these issues, beyond the ‘save our services’ rhetoric of the local campaign groups.

    Part of this must be due to our system, that allows a minority party like the UUP to control the largest ministry in the Executive. It is obviously in the other parties’ political interests (particularly the DUP) to do them down at every possible opportunity, whether that makes for good health policy or not. The result is no discernable strategy, a department that will allegedly be bankrupt on 1 April, and waiting lists that are going up, up, up.

    Holy mandatory coalition, Batman.

  • streetlegal

    The NI budget is really no more than an administrative fudge, aimed at getting the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition safely through the election in May. There has been a huge lack of detail on departmental spending plans. This detail will be withheld until after the election, along with the issue of notices of redundancy to public service workers and withdrawal of grants to community organisations.