We enjoyed the Stormont opening comedy, now it’s time to do better than rattling the begging bowl

Watching and listening to the local coverage from Stormont  in London which I do sparingly, I was mightily impressed by the energy and drama – all that walking up and down the stairs – on Saturday and Monday. A non-native wouldn’t  have followed a quarter of it but they should have been impressed by the synchronised unity of the  female duopoly of two children of former rival paramilitaries. Such amity is now almost as traditional as the King’s speech at Westminster but hopefully more meaningful. Not everything was smooth ritual. Bits of dodgy theatre on stage and behind the scenes were promptly exposed. Mick has his favourites .Mine included  the DUP doing the dirty on Sinn Fein for refusing the Finance job at the last minute and Sinn Fein caught on the hop forcing a quick adjournment. Edwin Poots, resplendent in a double breasted waistcoat as the new Speaker , wanting to clean Jim Allister’s clock (careful spelling required); Justin McNulty’s impressive £3 000 helicopter exit before Matthew O’Toole was installed as leader of the Opposition; and Doug Beattie’s utter confusion about the continuing role of Robin Swann ( in your interview with William Crawley who did you think you were talking too Doug, Stephen Nolan?). You couldn’t as they say, have made it up.

The two prime ministers turned up  separately and were not photographed together, with a Downing St “source” claiming that Leo was crashing Rishi’s party. This did not follow the historic script.  Alan Whysall  ex NIO official now with the Constitution Unit has proper doubts about the recent Conservative government’s  persistent distancing of Dublin, an approach which culminated  in their deal with the DUP grandly   – and provocatively to nationalists – entitled “Safeguarding the Union.”  While the paper stretched the terms of the Good Friday Agreement,  this was not the moment to make a big thing of it.


..everything about the document, starting with the title and cover, is partisan in tone.. But the process and especially the tone sit uneasily with the commitment in the Agreement that the government will exercise its power ‘with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions’. A government that was concerned about its future capacity as an honest broker might have conducted itself differently.

Curiously, the paper is implicitly rather critical of Conservative governments under the immediately preceding premierships for their failure to take into account unionist perceptions; but it offers no criticism of the DUP for obliging Northern Ireland to do without functioning government for two years – a period which, like the interregnum triggered in 2017 by Sinn Féin, has been extremely damaging to the wellbeing of people in Northern Ireland.

The border in the Irish sea  – and the land border –  will of course  continue  to pluck the heart strings.  But “the wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland” is the avowed compelling theme.   The issues are utterly familiar, as discussed in David’s podcast. Yet for some strange reason, there is a marked reluctance to take local responsibility  for them. Easier and up to a point fair enough to bat responsibility for them  back to Westminster.

The Assembly  will bid for  a new “fiscal framework” based on need, similar to that secured by the Welsh Senydd.  Even more problematically the UK Government have revived the old issue of devolving corporation tax to Northern Ireland to allow the Assembly to harmonise it  with the Republic in the single market.   On the bigger picture, a new fiscal framework inescapably involves the Assembly  raising more revenue locally. Chris Heaton Harris began a consultation on this last  September. Some results will be predictably negative, others more nuanced.

As  the BBC’s John Campbell has recalled , the Treasury loves reminding us  of the gap between NI’s local  revenue raising with elsewhere in the UK .

Newton Emerson as so often, makes a telling  provocative  point

   All Stormont’s financial problems would be solved by putting domestic rates up to the level of council tax & water bills in Wales. It would add £15/week to the average bill. The majority of households could comfortably afford it. Yet this is considered politically impossible… We have higher disposable incomes than Britain, except at the very highest income levels. If the Welsh can pay these bills then it’s not outrageous to ask why we can’t. Of course there should be help where required…

Nobody should  expect the  impossible and expect the Assembly  to vote for in effect a thumping tax increase  soon.  But they  would be well advised to concentrate on creating a new fiscal framework which would involve  increasing some local revenues  to match  increased grants from a hard pressed Treasury, whichever government is in power. Bluntly, they won’t  get more, more money from London unless they raise some more of their own. That, I believe, will be the next Stormont deal. It will emerge as  the biggest test of making the Assembly work and  the basis of  starting to solve the chronic problems of transforming the delivery of public services.


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