Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: Budget bickering will be amplified ahead of election

THERE’S consensus around the executive table that a three-year budget is a good thing. It’s infinitely better than the current hand-to-mouth system that leaves many government departments and organisations unsure about whether they’ll be adequately funded from one year to the next. A majority of parties also agree that health should be prioritised, especially under current circumstances.

However, it would naive to assume that this automatically translates into cross-party support for Finance Minister Conor Murphy’s draft budget.

With an election now less than six months away, every ministerial announcement – and every politician’s response to it – is made with one eye on the polls. This is not a time for making unpopular decisions.

Every party bar the minister’s own has their individual concerns about what’s being proposed. Some are genuine, others can be characterised as the politicking or part of the obligatory sham fight.

Over the following 12 weeks, during the public consultation, everybody with skin in the game will seek to maximise their interests and increase their share of the pie, the substance of which is dictated by the Treasury in London. The degree to which the voices of lobbyists and sectoral groups are heeded ahead of the final budget is moot but public input does at least provide some cover for the minister when he eventually earmarks funds.

Yet what we’re being asked to assess is a rather crude spending plan that pledges money to health, while cutting all other departments’ allocation by what appears to be a rather arbitrary figure of two per cent across the board. It's also argued that like so much Stormont policy, this budget yet again appears reactive rather than being the driver for transformation that it ought to be.

The draft budget has earmarked an increase in health spending

Past experience has shown us that the health service’s appetite for money is insatiable and that without a proper reform plan in place, no amount of extra funds will improve outcomes.

The consultation process will take us up to early March, when there’ll be little over a fortnight to finalise the budget before the assembly mandate ends. This means a spending plan for an executive which will be put in place before the shape of that executive has been decided by the electorate, which seems an unorthodox way of doing things.

The DUP yesterday voiced misgivings about the minister’s plan but chose not to veto its contents at this stage. Expect criticisms to become more pointed and exchanges more robust when the minister’s final spending plan is tabled a matter of weeks before the election.

 

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