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Blackberrygate and the Final Budget

Mark Devenport | 10:56 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

I mounted a lone vigil last night outside Stormont Castle as Executive ministers engaged in what were variously described as direct, brutally frank or ill tempered exchanges.

Sammy Wilson's seven page final document gave extra cash to Education, Regional Development, Health and Employment and Learning. The last two of these departments are, of course, Ulster Unionist controlled. But the fresh money wasn't enough to get them on side - instead they sided, predictably, with the SDLP in opposing the package.

Speaking in the Assembly chamber within the last few minutes the Finance Minister lampooned his critics as "ministers who wouldn't take "yes" for an answer". They say the new resources didn't close the gap, and criticise the budget as the product of a DUP/SF carve-up (something Sammy Wilson rejects as "absurd")

During last night's meeting the ministers traded these accusations face to face. At one point Martin McGuinness accused Alex Attwood of leaking the proceedings to me via texts from his Blackberry. The Social Development Minister offered the Deputy First Minister his Blackberry to inspect, an offer Mr McGuinness declined.

More seriously the First Minister is reported to have strongly criticised a senior official in the Health department, demanding his removal. This is the second instance in recent weeks in which a civil servant has been drawn into the in-fighting within the Executive. This appears to be further evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the Stormont system.

Given that the civil servants have to serve so many different party political masters, it's an extremely hard balancing act for officials to try to facilitate their ministers' agendas, whilst maintaining their professional impartiality. A number of officials will be rotated between the departments in the period surrounding the May election. Given the D'Hondt hand out of departments, the officials don't know which party ministers they might be working to after the election. It's a sorry state of affairs when the civil servants are being dragged in to this internecine battle - certainly something I can't imagine happening across the cabinet table in London.


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