Examining the Executives failure to agree a budget

By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show presenter


Scotland has a budget. Wales too. Northern Ireland doesn't. Once again, Stormont's behaviour makes this a place apart.

There are increasingly shrill disagreements between the two lead parties in the Executive as the DUP assumes an apparent role of sensible financial custodian keen to get the job done and Sinn Fein postures as a bulwark against Tory cuts.

Failure to agree a budget would be a crisis worse than anything else this Executive has faced.

The statutory measures that would come into place then would allow Stormont to spend just 75% of the available money - at which stage the tough Tory cuts become extreme Executive ones.

For that reason alone, it can be said with an even higher percentage of certainty than Basil McCrea would predict for dissident capability that a budget will be agreed.

Everything else you see and hear between now and then is largely political posturing. And it's posturing which suits the two big parties.

When a budget is finally agreed the detail of it will be lost in the thanks and praise showered upon the parties for "making tough choices for the good of the country".

A budget will pass through Stormont in its dying days as MLAs prepare to hit the hustings for the 5 May Assembly elections.

And the overriding positive message that both the DUP and Sinn Fein will highlight during that campaign will be the fact that their coalition stuck it out to the end.

For the first time since the unionist regime of old, Stormont will dissolve for an election at the end of a full term of government.

When the question is asked, "What did you achieve in the last four years?" the reply "we stuck together through thick and thin" will be all that's felt necessary.

Agreeing the budget in the face of a mini-crisis late in the day fits perfectly with that narrative.

So, if we assume that a budget will be agreed, can we make any predictions about what sort of a budget it will be?

Another look at Scotland and Wales may give some clues, with Northern Ireland likely to borrow a little from each.

First, we learn from Scotland that a one-year budget is possible and that the sky doesn't fall-in as a result.

With an election looming, and parties unclear about what ministries they'll hold come May, a one-year budget is a high possibility.

Such a settlement will be heavily criticised by the smaller parties and interest groups outside, but it delays the really nasty medicine until after the election and that has to be an attractive prospect for the big parties.

In Wales the government has refused to ring-fence health spending arguing that it makes up too much of the budget. Exactly the same arguments will be made here.

Michael McGimpsey will get a core percentage of his budget notionally ring-fenced to allow the other parties to argue that pure health spending has been protected, but the total budget will face cuts.

What about a pay-freeze for civil service workers? Very possible. Scotland has introduced one for staff on £21,000 or more.

Sinn Fein has recently proposed the creation of an advisory group to examine regional pay - with a view to cutting big salaries in the civil service.

It may acquiesce in a pay freeze as long as the entry point is not too low.

On Sunday's Politics Show we'll speak to Martin McGuinness about this and more, we report from the Donegal by-election where Sinn Fein is targeting a seat, and we'll hear from Dublin for the latest on the European bailout and its implications.


PS - DUP MLA Alastair Ross issued a statement this week arguing that the structures at Stormont "must continue to evolve".

He said the DUP was committed to devolution. True. But when did the DUP become a fan of evolution?

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