Editorial: Heaton-Harris's Stormont budget will punish all of us

Only the gullible will be persuaded by secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris's insistence that his crippling budget does not represent a punishment on all of the people of Northern Ireland.

Even where department allocations haven't been cut, as they have for education, justice and economy, they are at best only 'flat', as is the case for health, meaning they are broadly in line with what they received last year.

But with inflation remaining stubbornly high, each pound available this year won't stretch as far as before. Every household and family already knows this all too well. Even a neutral change in a department's budget represents a real-world cut.

Public services are also vulnerable to the cost of living crisis, including higher energy and transport costs. Pay demands and increasing pressure on services are other challenges that will have to be met from a smaller pot of money. We can expect more cuts across the board of the sort already announced in education, such as the end of the 'holiday hunger' scheme.

After Mr Heaton-Harris met with the five main Stormont parties, Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy predicted it would have a devastating impact, saying it "will reduce public services, undermine prosperity, and stifle the development of our children. It will cause long-term and irreparable damage to our society and economy".

It is worth noting that it could have been even worse: the Treasury has agreed to offer some flexibility over repaying Stormont's £300 million overspend from last year.

Mr Heaton-Harris has only been able to inflict deep cuts on the Northern Ireland public because the DUP persists in abandoning its responsibilities at Stormont. Fuelled by its opposition to the Windsor Framework, its boycott serves only its own narrow interests. It's an appallingly cynical approach which prevents locally elected ministers from deciding spending priorities.

Yet the roots of the dire state of the north's public finances lie deeper than the DUP's grudge-match with the Tories in whose Brexit fantasies it once colluded.

Dysfunction around the executive table has been a dominant characteristic of the years of Sinn Féin and DUP dominance. Stormont has consistently dodged public service reforms, perhaps most egregiously in health and social care.

Nor has the civil service always exercised prudent stewardship of taxpayers' money, as numerous Audit Office reports attest. Only this week, the process around public procurement - which accounts for around a quarter of the north's total budget - was criticised for being open to perceptions of "widespread failure and financial waste".

A budget shaped in the image of Tory austerity will only compound the malaise.