One weakness of modern politics in Northern Ireland but also elsewhere is not the unrelenting focus on personality, but the near absence of policy from that debate, in spite of the best efforts of public policy journalists to push the river backwards.
The point I made on Nolan (hosted by Mark Simpson) the other day was that threats from the Secretary of State to claw back £300,000 of overspend in the Northern Irish budget should be viewed in the context of the epic scale of overspend in England.
It is estimated English councils need £2.7bn more for children’s social care by 2025, and in the case of just one relatively small budget line in education (SEND) the short fall is about £3bn. The common problem is that the budget is too small.
It’s a point taken up by East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson this week:
The Treasury contribution to fund public services in Northern Ireland is going down rather than rising. As an example, in England up to 2025, spending will increase by 6% but only 3.6% in Northern Ireland.
The cost of providing public services for a small place is more expensive than a large one. We don’t benefit from economies of scale or critical mass. To provide vital services, we need a disproportionately larger public service, and for as long as we receive 3% of what England needs under the Barnett formula, we won’t and don’t get enough.
It’s a good point well made. It’s a shame few other parties have taken the time to make such key points rather than just being in. reaction mode, or worse thinking that shaming the DUP over their boycott will work.
Of course the place to be making this kind of argument is from inside the institutions as well as in public. But some of these points are purely political. The overspends in England are being tolerated because otherwise there’s political pain involved.
Few of our parties have learned how to do that (and maybe that’s because the current devolutionary settlement across the UK needs to be re-examined to make less likely that Westminster regimes can play such games with local democracy.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty