By Edward Ferrin – as Business and Economics Editor
As Northern Ireland tries to break away from the pandemic, the economy still presents huge challenges. The Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, has come under fire for refusing to use £100 million left spare ahead of the budget for the Northern Ireland Executive to begin planning for the next three years ahead. As he has had to take away the financial support for the PSNI in officer recruitment for more health investment, some of his executive colleagues have criticised his refusal to commit financial support to some commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
With a crisis still taking shape with the NHS, continued disruption in schools, no clear-cut plan for office working and the constraints of the Barnett consequential formula, Conor Murphy’s task is difficult. As recent as last week, some ministers in devolved government have begun preparations to tighten up on the finances of their department. Economy minister, Gordon Lyons and the DUP proposed to the economy committee at Stormont a series of measures to cut Educational Maintenance Allowance, cut the number of places at Ulster University and Queen’s University for Northern Ireland students and increases to tuition fees for those who do attain places at universities here.
Some might accuse the DUP minister of having engaged in a little authentic austerity policy making for Northern Ireland’s further education sector. His focus upon the further education sector should present all of us with alarm bells, as it risks pushing more of Northern Ireland’s young talent out of Northern Ireland in search of a better standard of living. His plan to scrap EMA will also be seen as an attempt to save money on the back of working class, deprived students who are lucky enough to get into further education or achieve good grades at GCSE.
If the Finance Minister is to present a budget which will focus on the NHS, he will have to ensure that vital public services will not come at a cost of better healthcare. Stormont faces another political crisis as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson threatens to collapse power-sharing over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the future of Northern Ireland financially is unknown at a time when we are already in a deficit to the UK. Treasury and unable to achieve full financial autonomy. It will be for other politicians to decide how they wish to see Northern Ireland’s future – one of financial strain, rising living costs and never-ending debts or a chance to finally make inroads on Northern Ireland’s subvention from Westminster.
As we approach another election for Stormont, the Infrastructure Minister, Nicola Mallon MLA, has accused the DUP and the chair of the economy committee of not learning from mistakes their party made during RHI, squabbles over how much money should be used on NHS costs than on keeping commitments made in agreements to re-launch power-sharing and parties starting to promise many great things for devolution, with little or no understanding as to how it will ever be paid! Northern Ireland has been round the block too long to forget that one day the huge loans from Whitehall will be become less and less while the need for new ideas from the finance minister will get more and more.