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Budget move a step towards direct rule

James Brokenshire may have had little choice over bringing forward budget legislation at Westminster yesterday but this move will be widely viewed as a step towards direct rule.

Clearly, we need to have a budget in place to run public services but the fact that we are in the position of having a secretary of state performing a function that should fall to Stormont is deeply regrettable.

It is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and reflects a failure of politics in relation to the two main parties who have been unable to find agreement on restoring the executive.

No one should find it acceptable that local political accountability and responsibility has fallen victim to the ongoing impasse.

It should be political representatives elected to the assembly who are determining spending priorities and taking decisions based on the mandate from voters.

Instead we are effectively being governed by the civil service with the increasing involvement of the secretary of state.

Just how long this situation can be maintained is open to question but while the budget legislation will keep the wheels of government turning, it is no substitute for strategic direction and political engagement.

There are crucial matters that need urgent attention in a range of areas, not least health and education.

In the budget the health service will see its funding increased by 5.4 per cent but the unions are warning that once inflation is factored in this figure actually represents a cut.

As we know there are serious problems affecting the provision of healthcare in Northern Ireland and these can only be properly addressed by a fully engaged minister taking important decisions to reform and re-shape our crisis-hit health system, as indicated in the Bengoa report, published a year ago.

Health is one massive area but there are also concerns about how we organise and fund education in the north.

School principals in the secondary sector yesterday warned they are facing a `critical situation' due to financial pressures.

Debt is a major issue for many schools which are struggling to deliver high quality education in an era of reduced funding.

As has been said many times before, investment in education is an investment in our future.

We need well educated, highly skilled young people if we are to build and maintain a strong economy in Northern Ireland.

This week's developments in terms of the budget should help to concentrate minds in Sinn Féin and the DUP in terms of redoubling their efforts to reach a deal.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the weekend that agreement could be reached early next year.

It is not clear what he is basing this on but the current stalemate simply cannot go on indefinitely.

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