Budget certainty, political direction and a sustainable government – yes please

08 February 2018 - by Claire Flynn

Today is crunch time for a decision to set the Northern Ireland budget for the year ahead.

If the latest round of negotiations fails, the Secretary of State will, for the second time since the start of November, face mounting pressure to make a budget announcement in order to provide financial certainty for Northern Ireland.

Nearly a month after Head of the Civil Service David Sterling called for clarity around this year's budget, officials continue to run the various departments while remaining stymied by their inability to take major policy decisions.

There was little information forthcoming in relation to any progress from Stormont this week. Recently appointed Secretary of State Karen Bradley may have provided a "milestone statement" on Wednesday, but few details emerged beyond the suggestion that a deal to save power-sharing was “achievable within the coming days”. She said nothing more so as not “to jeopardise a successful outcome”.

Last night, we heard that hopes of a deal were rising, with 'strong signs' of a breakthrough being reported by the Belfast Telegraph. The hiatus in talks today – as Karen Bradley attends (more) important cabinet business in Whitehall – might allow parties to sell any prospective agreement to their bases or, maybe, it is just an unwelcome break in momentum. 

Meanwhile, there has been one committee meeting at Stormont of late. Representatives from the business, and community and voluntary sectors told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Parliament Buildings, last week, that while devolution was better than direct rule, what was really needed was a “proper, fully functioning government”. A “sticking plaster”, they said, would not be good enough. They concluded that it was time for a budget to be put in place so that decisions could be made. 

A new Executive is, of course, not just critical for functional government and sustainable decision-making but also for ensuring that Northern Ireland’s interests can be represented in the Brexit process – all things about which witnesses at the Committee voiced further concerns. As it turns out, that committee will be stepping up its role to some degree, as the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has invited it to Brussels to represent Northern Ireland in any capacity that it can.

More powers going to local government is likely to be one recommendation from the Committee’s inquiry into the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland, with MPs hearing about how councils had “stepped up to the mark” in the last year.

Further evidence on policing, education, health and the very real impact of both no budget and a lack of decision-making on the future of vital public services, was also provided. For the last year, the Policing Board has not been fully functioning, though independent members have been proceeding as best they can in the absence of the ten MLAs required by legislation. This has impacted upon funding decisions. There are significant senior PSNI job vacancies which have not been filled and plans cannot be signed off.

Our health and education systems remain unreformed. Without political direction and approval, there is no way to progress and no way to prepare with confidence.

This week, academics told the Committee that Westminster could hold direct rule ministers to account, in case the talks to restore devolution fail, but the Committee alone could not scrutinise that arrangement due to constraints in the make-up of its membership and size.

The possibility of the Assembly existing as a “consultative” body, in an oversight and scrutiny role, during a period of direct rule was another suggestion, as was the idea of a citizens' assembly, something the Committee will hear more about in a fortnight’s time when it listens to evidence on “innovative ideas” in relation to the democratic deficit.