While most government financial statements contain political undertones, the secretary of state’s budget for Northern Ireland is somewhat different.
It reads more like a thinly disguised political announcement with financial figures grudgingly thrown in.
Although recent history teaches us to expect neither sympathy nor empathy from Westminster, Chris Heaton-Harris’s statement is even more disturbing than what we have come to expect. Its politics reflect an element of threat and its financial figures suggest a culture of punishment.
The threat is that if Stormont is not reconvened, he will consider introducing revenue-raising methods, including water charges. Apart from the fact that this would significantly increase the cost of living, it would appear unreasonable of Mr Heaton-Harris to chastise us all for the sins of the few.
Why should everyone be penalised for the DUP’s failure to return to government?
The concept of punishment is reserved largely for our schools which, he says, must implement “significant reductions in current spending.” With the Education Authority facing a £300 million deficit and more than half our schools unable to operate within their existing budgets, the secretary of state is effectively saying our children do not deserve a decent education.
The process which led him to that conclusion suggests that logic and reasoning have gone missing in the Northern Ireland Office. He argues that Stormont ministers who remained in their posts until October incurred a £660m overspend, and the consequences of that will be felt by schoolchildren.
Mr Heaton-Harris claims that his budget is necessary to protect the public, but his attitude to education suggests that schools might need protection from him.
One former senior civil servant has said that the budget is an affront to democracy, because it places difficult financial choices in the hands of departmental permanent secretaries. They must make decisions, many of which are political in origin and outcome.
It might reasonably be suggested that the budget is also an affront to all those here who rely on adequately funded public services in health, education, social care and welfare. Threats and punishment are hardly the most appropriate methods of addressing the increasing fragility of those services.
Perhaps the secretary of state might like to reconsider his budget and do what his record here shows he does best - change his mind.