Feeney on Friday: Financial realities show Stormont executive is just a glorified county council

People calling for spending on major infrastructure projects are living in cloud cuckoo land

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (left) speak to the media as First Minister Michelle O’Neill (right) and Minister of Finance Caoimhe Archibald (centre) look on
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (left) speak to the media as First Minister Michelle O’Neill (right) and Minister of Finance Caoimhe Archibald (centre) look on (Liam McBurney/PA)

People are getting antsy about lack of delivery from Stormont, with particular emphasis on the lack of a programme for government.

The delay is leading various interest groups to advocate inclusion of their pet project, be it roads, sewage disposal, housing etc – all completely unrealistic given the political and financial circumstances the executive faces.

Take the political first. The DUP is at sixes and sevens after the events of this year.

Following their stupid boycott of the Good Friday institutions, the party had to return to Stormont following an acrimonious meeting of the DUP executive where Donaldson made excessive claims for the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ paper.

It turned out he had sold the party a pup. The party still remains divided, with surly dissent among both MPs and MLAs. Nine DUP MLAs recently abstained on a vote to accept new EU rules on pet food, while the majority voted in favour.

Then there’s leadership. Gavin Robinson was hastily installed as interim leader after Donaldson’s resignation. The party constitution requires a new leader to be endorsed by the party’s 130-strong executive, an opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard again. There doesn’t look like any rush to offer that opportunity.

Robinson seems to have fallen silent after a couple of initial statements to rally the troops. He hasn’t exactly set the heather blazing. He appears endowed with what British comedian Bob Cryer called ‘charisn’tma’. However, no obvious contender for his job is in view.

As for leadership in the executive, Emma Little-Pengelly is, to say the least, weak. She’s not universally popular in the party. A protégée of Donaldson, and along with Robinson one of the three amigos who negotiated the non-existent changes in the Windsor Framework, Donaldson nominated her, devoid of electoral mandate, as his proxy Deputy First Minister for party convenience.

On the broader scene, DUP MPs face challenges in this year’s general election. Jim Allister’s TUV/Reform wrecking candidates will confront them in an unknown number of constituencies. The price for having a clear run is to denounce the ‘Donaldson deal’, as Allister and his supporters call it. Otherwise they will be denounced as ‘protocol implementers’.

Gavin Robinson is particularly vulnerable in East Belfast with a majority of 1,819. What a coup if Allister could decapitate the DUP.

In short, the DUP does not have its troubles to seek. Agreeing a programme for government, which would mean implicitly accepting the Windsor Framework,, is likely to conflict with the party election manifesto.

Secondly, there’s the financial circumstances of a programme. Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald is still at loggerheads with the British Treasury about a long-term solution for sustaining public services: adequate funding for the future based on needs here, instead of funding below that level which guarantees deterioration of services.

As she pointed out on Tuesday, the north faces a financial cliff edge next year, requiring draconian cuts. People advising her to include infrastructure projects like roads and sewage are living in cloud cuckoo land.

Forty years ago, Chris Patten – remember him? – was talking of the need for major sewage and drainage projects to replace Edwardian systems here. Of course it never happened. Today that would cost billions.

What Archibald is arguing for is money to sustain existing plans in the years ahead. There is no money for new projects, nor will there be. Besides, since the Conservatives wrecked the British economy there is no money for projects in Britain, like the HS2 for example, so they aren’t going to transfer billions over here.

The north faces a financial cliff edge next year, requiring draconian cuts. People advising Caoimhe Archibald to include infrastructure projects like roads and sewage in a programme for government are living in cloud cuckoo land

Furthermore, there is not enough income from taxes to restore public services in Britain. Economic advisers to the Labour party estimate it could take 10 to 15 years to remedy the damage the Conservatives have done to public services.

Given all those political and financial circumstances, it will be a very modest programme for government if the executive can manage to cobble one together by June as we were promised. It is especially problematical when the British won’t provide even a three-year budget to enable future planning and virement within a budget.

It all brings home the reality that the executive isn’t a government. It’s a glorified county council administering money the imperial parliament supplies.