The voice at the parlour door and the looming NI cuts

My dad tells the story of a TV or radio drama broadcast decades ago while he was living in Dublin.  The protagonist’s wife gave him some of the food – special “party bread” – she had prepared for a gathering of some friends, on condition that he kept out of the way and didn’t embarrass her – that he would disappear until they were gone.

Later that evening there was a voice at the parlour door.

“Mary, bring me some party bread… or I’ll appear!”

I have a theory.

The Executive successfully negotiated in 2010-2011 for the promised cuts to NI’s block grant to be backloaded – essentially to borrow from future years’ block grants to ease the pain of the cuts being enforced by Westminster.  A budget was devised and agreed on this basis, without resorting to inflationary rises in the domestic regional rate.  It was known that Westminster intended changes to welfare benefits, and funding for these is inevitably predicated on how much it would cost to pay the same benefits as in GB – thus the so-called fines.  Further cuts to the block grant for 2015-16 had been signalled in June 2013.

That, without getting into rights and wrongs, is pretty much where we were pre-Stormont House.  The Treasury had no desire to hand out more money and was quite probably wondering why we didn’t introduce water charges, increase the regional rate, or both.  Any attempt to give NI more money would fall foul of Scotland, Wales and regions of England who have suffered similar cuts but at the outset, not delayed.

Then the voice at the door.  Party bread, or they’ll appear.

I see Stormont House as a fudge.  A little new cash, but mainly loans to see us through.  The ability to sell assets to fund corporation tax cuts.  Bridging the gap between welfare reform and the funds needed to run the present welfare system until it’s implemented.

My theory is one of brinksmanship.  Avoid planning for future cuts in the hope, however vain, that there will be a change of heart and more cash will be provided, and perhaps a crisis to force the issue.

When the next difficulties come, perhaps when they realise that selling Belfast Harbour will only pay for a corporation tax reduction for one year and the cupboard will be empty again, can we expect another political crisis?

Maybe, maybe not.  The elephant in the room from the beginning has been that however much Sinn Fein, my own trade union, and others may deny it, NI does not have and never has had the power to force Westminster, whether in the form of the Treasury or in the persons of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to give us more cash.  Realistically, the only hope of successfully fighting the cuts is at a national UK-wide level, and there is little or no incentive for the new Government to acquiesce and change its plans, not even in 2019 as the next election draws close.

The real danger is that Westminster will tire of people coming to the door and threatening to appear, and will invite them in to reveal that the party bread is all gone, and then tell them that’s it – take what they’re given, or be booted out for Direct Rule ministers to take over, introduce direct water charges and probably also increase the domestic regional rate (besides passing several other pieces of legislation the Assembly has avoided or rejected – and some anti-Agreement parties would be most displeased to see enacted!)

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