Will Stormont hold together on budget proposals?

All eyes will be on Stormont this Wednesday, as MLAs prepare to vote on a revised four-year budget from finance minister Sammy Wilson, writes Ed Jacobs.

All eyes will be on Stormont this Wednesday, as MLAs prepare to vote on a revised four-year budget from finance minister Sammy Wilson.

Presenting the plans to Stormont on Friday, Wilson outlined a package which included an extra £432 million for public services, on top of what had already been announced in the draft budget in December, which broken down includes additional resources of:

• £120 million for health – supplemented by a further £69 million real spending power which does not appear in the figures;

• £154 million for education;

• £51 million for employment and learning;

• £107 million for regional development.

The additional funds have been found as a result of an increase in the amount of property rates brought in, use of an “invest to save” fund and an overcommitment by the government over the four-year budget anticipates extra revenue generating opportunities taken up in future by departments.

Mr Wilson went on to explain:

“In a five-party mandatory coalition no party will get everything that it wants from a Budget process but I believe that this outcome marks a fair compromise and has sought to take on board the concerns of all parties.

“But the reality is that in the present fiscal environment there is less money available to spend. As I said back in December when releasing the Draft Budget, we have received no favours from the UK Spending Review which has resulted in a loss of £4 billion over the Spending Review period.

“The UK national administration, supported by their electoral partners in the UUP, has imposed a very tough spending review settlement on Northern Ireland.”

Despite this, however both the UUP and SDLP continue to voice serious concerns over the budget, evidenced by their ministers failing to support the final budget in a meeting of the executive on Thursday evening. And during the finance minister’s presentation to MLAs on Friday, clashes were marked by what Noel McAdam at the Belfast Telegraph has dubbed “ill-tempted outbursts” by both UUP and SDLP MLAs.

The proposals, however, have failed to satisfy UUP health minister Michael McGimpsey, who has long argued that the executive is failing to meet the needs of the Northern Ireland Health Service. As UTV’s Political Editor, Ken Reid, has tweeted:

“Michael McGimpsey says he will fight cuts but says some bills will not be paid after April 1 if budget passed.”

And in a barbed attack on the Finance Minister, the UUP’s finance spokesman David McNarry responded to the final budget proposals by declaring:

“It is good that the minister has found an extra £400m, but still very worrying how he missed it in the first place.”

Responding to the opposition his proposals have faced, Wilson argued:

“The way that I have approached this entire Budget process and my statement today will, I believe, once and for all put that accusation to rest. While producing the Budget was necessarily free of any selfish party political interests it is clear that some of the opposition to the Budget has been for cynical political purposes. Some Ministers simply could not take yes for an answer.”

All this begs the question, as to whether, given their opposition, SDLP and UUP Ministers can remain in coalition with the DUP and Sinn Fein?

For the SDLP, its leader, Margaret Ritchie, has made clear her party’s minister will stay in post, to fight the cuts from the inside. However, the UUP’s position remains far more uncertain after employment minister Danny Kennedy refused to rule out a joint resignation with Michael McGimpsey after Wednesday’s vote.

Whether whispers of resignations come to fruition remains to be seen. However, with the Assembly due to be dissolved for the elections later this month, questions will continue to be raised over the viability of mandatory coalitions given the acrimony following the toughest budget ever faced by Stormont.

If the peace agreement in Northern Ireland is to be seen as a process rather than an event towards a ‘normalisation’ of its politics, then a properly resourced and strong opposition could be just what is needed to keep the Government in check. The alternative would be continued opposition within the executive which cannot be tenable.

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