For the best part of today, we will learn about the scale of spending cuts and tax rises, which are necessary to reduce the size of the UK budget deficit. Perhaps we should reasonably confident that this Government will at least get to grips with the problems and bring it under control during its administration.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, a political magma chamber is building up. Failure to adapt to changes in circumstances since the original programme for Government, settled upon the Executive by the last Government in 2007, has meant that a deficit has been building up with no collective responsibility within the Executive to deal with it.
As Owen Polley, writing for the Belfast Telegraph, has already noted, there is friction between the Finance Minister and the First Minister over the need to bring forward the Water charges. This is the clearest sign of a crisis waiting to happen. Of course, Sammy Wilson has been trying to persuade the Executive of the need to bring forward the Water charges since before Christmas. He deserves support for his argument.
Today, David McNarry, the Finance Spokesman of the UUP, published his party’s proposals for ameliorating the financial position of the Northern Ireland Government. The proposals are eminently sensible. Unfortunately, they lose a lot of their shine when set against the fact that the UUP has Ministers in charge of two of the three largest spending departments at Stormont.
Mr. Michael McGimpsey, the UUP Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been coming under increasing pressure from the Standing Committees in the Assembly for failing to come up with proposals for making savings. In his defence, Mr. McGimpsey asserts that his Department should be ring-fenced from spending cuts – a view not shared by Sammy Wilson.
Mr. McNarry suggests that the Executive should re-write the programme for Government set in 2007. In anticipation of the difficulties that Ministers would have in agreeing to spending cuts in their own departments, he proposes a new mechanism (a Corporate system) to enable decisions to be reached on spending cuts. Mr. McNarry’s post says this:
“The current system relies on departmental decision making on reductions as opposed to overall objectives. This mechanism is, at best, destabilising to the entire system. It also lacks transparency and has the potential to create a situation which the public would not understand where, for example, a football club might get a new ground while a hospital ward might be closed simply because separate Departments happen to administer those areas.
Our new common priority scale would be a more professional and more corporate way to handle the new climate of cuts that we face as a regional Administration. The emphasis on that point is that we face the cuts as a corporate regional Administration and we should deal with them in a corporate manner.
Corporate decision making and the proper functioning of the five party coalitions are not options in this climate of cuts. They are necessities.”
In effect, this would mean that a majority vote within the Executive, rather than the individual Minister, would decide where the axe falls. The mechanism is not dissimilar to the cabinet ‘Star Chamber’ set up during Mrs. Thatcher’s administration for dealing with disputes between the Treasury and other ministries over spending budgets.
Again, this is eminently sensible (in theory) but it fails to take into account the differing party strengths within the Executive. It would mean, for example, that if the DUP and Sinn Fein between them decided to give a “kick in the teeth” to the UUP and the SDLP, they could “arrange” a majority against them before the vote took place to make the axe fall mainly in those departments. The likelihood would then be that those Ministers and their respective parties would suffer electoral consequences by taking the blame for the cuts.
Another possible, perhaps more sinister, scenario is that factions within the Executive could end up voting with each other along sectarian lines. In all likelihood, that would stoke up a different kind of crisis.
It may be time for the UUP and the SDLP to consider leaving the Executive and going into opposition. In doing that they increase the chance that the remaining ministers, on the Executive, will reach a decision collectively. Such a move may also be welcomed by the Public generally on the long road to normal politics.