An Ulster Unionist MLA once described Green Party leader Steven Agnew to me as a younger Jim Allister with longer hair and less talent. That has often looked harsh but maybe true. However Sam McBride in the News Letter has an excellent piece quoting Agnew on the more fundamental causes of the current financial crisis at Stormont:
The North Down MLA said: “The fantasy they peddled was that you can get more services but pay less – that is simply unsustainable.
“The inevitable outworking of this lack of decision-making and co-operative working is that we can no longer fund public services properly.
“There is a difference between crisis management and management in a crisis and quite frankly what we are being presented with here can at best be described as ‘panic management’.”
He added: “The big Executive parties have led the people of Northern Ireland on a fool’s errand by effectively bribing and fooling the electorate into thinking that first-class services and appropriate welfare support for the most vulnerable can be provided without having to pay for it.
“Now their emaciated chickens have come home to roost and they are all very keen to blame each other.
“But the bottom line is, these parties were tasked with managing our economy in a realistic way and they simply failed.”
Mr Agnew said that Stormont ministers had issued “soothing words” to their voters to win votes based on policies which they knew were not sustainable.
He accused the Executive of having “gambled” on the property market seven years ago and refused to take unpopular decisions to raise revenue by bringing in new taxes or varying existing taxes.
“Now citizens of this country will have to suffer for this fundamental and catastrophic mismanagement of our finances as economic ‘lifeboat’ measures are being rushed in without proper scrutiny, planning or thought.
“So instead of easing in the budgets to mitigate against cuts over the past number of years and looking at areas where revenue could have been raised, such as lifting the cap on rates, they put up a smokescreen suggesting they were managing budgets effectively.
“They even went as far as asking the Tories for a cut in the block grant in the form of a corporation tax cut. What sort of message did that send out?”
It is worth noting that in 2011 Agnew was suggesting the plastic bag tax might reduce rates and has called for a reduction in corporation tax for smaller businesses (though not an overall cut) neither of which he is really saying now.
However, Agnew’s case is pretty compelling. The only point maybe to add to it is that throughout the boom years of the early naughties Tony Blair was so obsessed with his legacy that he was willing to throw what turned out to be unsustainable amounts of UK public money at Northern Ireland. This happened to a somewhat lesser extend in mainland GB but was to a proportionally lower extent and accompanied by significant structural change for example in the area of health.
In Northern Ireland money was thrown at problems almost it seemed without thought and a political system was created with far too many elected politicians. That system also mitigated against change with endless checks and balances and no opposition. Alongside that was the effective suspension of the rule of law for many individuals and organisations. Those chickens, even more fundamental than the ones Agnew talks of, and created by Blair, Powell, Hain et al. have also been coming home to roost.