Editorial: Little to cheer in Jeremy Hunt's Budget but post-Brexit opportunities for Northern Ireland remain in Windsor Framework
There was little for us to cheer in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's Budget this week. Stormont is getting an extra £130 million over the next two years, with most of it earmarked for day-to-day spending. Meanwhile, the total allocation to Stormont departments is set to fall by a larger amount in coming years.
There is a welcome £40m boost for third-level education, though this must be balanced against wider budget pressures. And an extra £3m for the 'Tackling Paramilitarism' programme will be greeted with some scepticism, given the fact that 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, paramilitary groups remain stubbornly active.
The government is going to extend its energy price guarantee scheme for another three months, though it will be less generous. That means we will see sharp price rises in our electric and gas bills, with Power NI bringing in a 14 per cent rise from April 1.
The most eye-catching announcement of Mr Hunt's budget – an extension of free childcare to children in England aged between nine months and five-years-old – will be looked on with envy by Northern Ireland families, who have been denied any sort of similar support by Stormont.
Many will identify with the father paying a crippling £1,600 monthly childcare bill who has told this newspaper that he has no hope Stormont, even if it was restored, would be able to help.
Some might argue that Mr Hunt's Budget represents a dramatic improvement on the chaos that unfolded just under six months ago when his hapless predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, delivered a so-called mini-budget that caused near-maximum disruption to the economy.
It may not surprise observers of Northern Ireland politics that DUP MP Sammy Wilson was one of the very few to believe that the Liz Truss-Kwasi Kwarteng plan would, as he put it, "increase living standards, boost employment and raise revenue for public services".
The exact opposite has been the case. The general economic climate remains unchanged, with families facing challenging headwinds that include rising food prices, high inflation and steeper mortgage rates. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an undoubted factor but the real brake on the economy is Brexit.
Northern Ireland is, of course, uniquely exposed in this respect. The NI Protocol, as refined by the Windsor Framework, does offer opportunities that, if we had functioning power-sharing and more politicians with the vision to match our business community, could supercharge our economy and give our children a brighter, more positive future.