'Phantom' budget buys Stormont time
FINANCE minister Arlene Foster won a small but significant victory yesterday by securing support at Stormont for her so-called phantom budget.
The assembly's finance committee accepted her argument that, in the absence of support for welfare reform from Sinn Féin and the SDLP, it was the only way that Stormont departments could continue to meet their spending commitments.
It means that the budget bill tabled by Mrs Foster at the assembly earlier this week has been granted accelerated passage, a measure which allows a bill to be pushed more quickly towards becoming legislation. It will still be the end of July before it can become law.
Mrs Foster's budget is based on two assumptions which would give the executive access to an extra £350 million funding: that a deal on welfare reform has been struck; and that the Stormont House Agreement has been implemented.
Neither, of course, is true, thus the budget's 'phantom' status.
It is difficult to know what other course of action was open to Mrs Foster if the dread scenario of a civil servant taking control of Stormont departments' spending within weeks was to be staved off.
Mrs Foster's budget might buy the assembly more time to sort out its latest impasse but it is only a short-term solution because the fundamental disagreements between the parties over welfare and the looming spectre of even deeper budget cuts remain.
She warned that the intervention of secretary of state Theresa Villiers may ultimately be the only way forward, something which Chancellor George Osborne may also have been hinting at this week when he said the House of Commons may have to consider the matter.
With Mr Osborne due to further tighten Stormont's finances, it is essential that the executive parties agree a stable budget and accept responsibility for making devolution work.