After calls for Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland to resign over claims of misleading his department’s oversight committee and “poor budget management” by Edwin Poots’s Department of Health, this week Finance Minister Simon Hamilton proved a shining light for the DUP in showing he isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, even to party ministerial colleagues. In contrast, despite recent symbolic gestures and PR coups Sinn Féin continues to block welfare reform in Northern Ireland and evade economic reality. The latest quarterly monitoring round has committed to cutting £87m from Stormont departmental budgets with another round of savings due to be determined in October. If the Executive still can’t agree on welfare reform by then, we have to ask how our politicians can realistically be trusted with increased devolved powers if and when the opportunity arises. Until Stormont proves it can function constructively, make tough decisions and act on them collectively, the Northern Ireland Executive must abide by the Westminster Treasury’s rules and penalties.
Abstaining on the monitoring round Executive vote, UUP Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy hit the nail on the head in saying that “While Sinn Féin may be good negotiators they aren’t good at government… all they have done is kick the can down the road.” While others acknowledge that budgets, deadlines and penalties for failure to reach agreement have to be met, Sinn Féin are either outrageously naive in denouncing ‘Tory cuts’ without expecting consequences for political stalemate and inaction or have no other alternative than to strike a deal ring-fencing ministries belonging to themselves and the DUP. An all-Ireland party soaring in the polls and with political centenaries and general elections on the horizon, it is imperative that the party balances its leftist mantra across both Irish jurisdictions, but being in Opposition as they are in the Republic is very different to being in government as they are in the North. It is difficult to imagine Sinn Féin taking a similar line with the EU and IMF if they were in coalition in the Republic as they currently take with a Conservative-led British government over welfare reform.
Just over ten years ago, according to The Economist, almost half of the 27 countries that make up the European Union were ruled by left-wing governments; more recently, in light of the economic crisis, this fell to as low as five. Across the continent there has been a significant emphasis on public sector reform and balancing budgets; in Northern Ireland, where reliance upon the public sector is comparatively gigantic, we have experienced continuing reluctance to reform and to innovate from, by-and-large, the same Executive since 2007. By delaying welfare reform we are only postponing further pain which, down the line, public services cannot be expected to be prepared for. The very prospect of Treasury-imposed penalties should have focused politicians on ways to instigate change in the way we do things, to free us from the shackles of over-reliance and show Westminster that Northern Ireland is prepared to make its own way. Three years after its IMF bailout, through good governance the Republic of Ireland is finding its feet and open for business. In Northern Ireland the usual distribution of the Westminster block grant has continued, budgetary decisions have been constantly delayed yet we hope to be rewarded with the devolution of powers of taxation.
Despite spin and playing to the crowd, Sinn Féin has to accept economic reality and understand that Stormont has to live within its means. It is easy to denounce cuts in Opposition in the Republic and stall decision-making in the North. Life in Opposition is one thing, but governing is another. The Northern Ireland Executive cannot and should not be comfortable with simply relying on Westminster for pocket money; we have to make our own way, and the better our performance the greater trust and devolved powers Northern Ireland should expect to receive in return. Delaying decisions and public standoff is not leadership, nor does it instil confidence. With Simon Hamilton’s blunt words of disappointment over Edwin Poots’s Health budget overspend we see a glimmer of hope for greater accountability across the Executive, an end to pardoning inefficiency even among party colleagues. The electorate deserves integrity and representatives to govern in the greater interest, not rhetoric, impasse and increasing uncertainty.