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Colum Eastwood: The DUP is making all the decisions and doling out all of the money

Colum Eastwood
Colum Eastwood

In northern politics, silence is usually a sure sign that there is plenty going on beneath the surface.

It should be a cause of deep worry that last week, in relative silence, a direct rule budget was designed, produced and proposed for Northern Ireland.

Beneath the surface and the silence of that budget, the DUP was busy controlling operations.

The reason I know that is because Sammy Wilson took to Twitter to boast about a meeting of the Tory/DUP committee just 48 hours before the budget outline was announced. That private committee includes DUP MPs and a Tory Treasury minister.

People deserve to know - in the absence of devolution, the DUP is making all the decisions and doling out all of the money.

I know this analysis of DUP political advantage sits in contrast to recent commentary. If we’re honest, there have been plenty taking pleasure in the obvious discomfort and dysfunction of the DUP following on from the Stormont deal that wasn’t.

For two weeks the various layers of the DUP leadership have been rehearsing one version of their story at noon, only to invent a new version of that story at night. From Gregory to Jeffrey, they’ve been caught out badly and worse still they’ve been caught out in public.

That said, the precarious nature of Arlene Foster’s position and the internal difficulties of her party shouldn’t distract from the broader realpolitik which now confronts us. If we remain distracted, we are in danger of badly missing the bigger point.

Of course the DUP is losing in the propaganda stakes, but they have still been left wielding all the power. This week’s draft budget was the opening salvo to that dangerous reality.

Let me be clear, having been denied a government for over a year, the crises in our health and education budgets are badly in need of investment and decisions. The extra money is needed and therefore welcome, however it should also be added that much of what was announced barely plugs current budgetary holes and the big rise in the regional rate will hurt many families.

The key point here is that a budget needed to be set but it should never have been set by one political party in the North - this is not the DUP’s money.

It is obvious that the political needs of that party will never serve the needs of everyone in Northern Ireland.

The readers of this newspaper from west of the Bann and border counties know only too well of what I’m talking about.

The DUP are very good at looking after themselves and very unashamed in ignoring the needs of everybody else. The chances of the DUP directing money to areas in the west and along the border, areas where they possess little electoral strength, are slim to none.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. I am sorry to say that in their 10 years at the top of government together, Sinn Féin allowed the DUP to run all economic policy.

We now risk seeing that pattern of economic discrimination playing out again, only this time it’s enacted in the corridors of Westminster without a functioning assembly to give some level of accountability and transparency.

I can only see one solution that will move us away from this new Tory/DUP status quo.

Through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, both governments should jointly agree a package of legislation on language, legacy and the reform of the petition of concern. In other words, clear the decks of disagreement and then challenge us all to get back to work and get back to the Good Friday Agreement.

Otherwise it doesn’t matter how many protests and posters we organise against the DUP - they’ll still be in power.

Colum Eastwood is the leader of the SDLP.

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