London wants proof that Stormont can take the tough decisions – Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly meet with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak  and Chris Heaton-Harris  at Stormont Castle on Monday.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chris Heaton-Harris want proof that the new executive led by First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly can put its finances on a more sustainable footing. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

The government wants revenue-raising from Stormont not because the Treasury desperately needs £113 million – it is about to give Stormont £3.3 billion. What the government really wants is proof the new executive can take a financial decision that might not cause every voter in Northern Ireland to burst into applause.

London sought the same in New Decade, New Approach, the 2015 Fresh Start agreement and the previous year’s Stormont House agreement. In all of these deals, chaired by London and Dublin, executive parties signed up to consider revenue-raising measures if they would not cut their extra spending, in order to put Stormont’s finances on a sustainable footing.

Government and executive are now in a negotiation, so defensive postures are to be expected. The package on offer could be improved and may have some technical flaws. However, a demonstration of responsibility from Stormont is ultimately essential and long overdue. Parties are fond of criticising the government for not delivering its promises. They have unmet pledges of their own.

A demonstration of responsibility from Stormont is ultimately essential and long overdue. Parties are fond of criticising the government for not delivering its promises. They have unmet pledges of their own


There is cross-party support to create a £400 million childcare strategy (Alamy Stock Photo)

While the executive refuses to raise any money, there was cross-party support at the assembly’s first full session to create a £400 million childcare strategy.

This was not quite as profligate as it appeared. England introduced 30 hours of free childcare per week for three- and four-year-olds in 2017. The age threshold has since been progressively lowered: two-year-olds will get 15 hours from this April and all pre-schoolers over nine months will get 30 hours from next September.

At every stage, Stormont’s budget has been increased by an equivalent per capita amount under the Barnett formula, so the necessary funding or something close to it should already in the pot. Ominously, there was no mention of this during the assembly debate, although the cost of the scheme was discussed. Eaten bread is soon forgotten.


In a sign the executive could be able to take unpopular budget decisions, Sinn Féin has single-handedly voted through a 6.5 per cent district rate increase in Derry, a seat it is targeting in the upcoming general election. This will put householders’ bills up by around 3 per cent.

The SDLP managed a double-dose of opposition by claiming the council is due more rates support from Stormont, a decision that would fall to the DUP communities minister, who could in turn blame the Sinn Féin finance minister. Realistically, it is too late to arrange more support for this financial year.

The UUP also opposed the rates increase, while the DUP abstained. That may be another portent of Stormont’s future.


Communities Minister Gordon Lyons said he is seeking clarity over funding for the redevelopment of Casement Park
Communities Minister Gordon Lyons (Liam McBurney/PA)

Gordon Lyons, the DUP communities minister, has said any extra cash for the Casement stadium from his department must be distributed “on a fair and equitable basis”. If that means equal funding for soccer and rugby, or at least comparable funding for Irish league grounds under the sub-regional stadium plan, it would mean doubling or tripling Casement’s £80 million cost overrun.

The ideal solution is for London and Dublin to fund the over-run more or less entirely. If it costs Stormont nothing, there is no reason to ‘equitably’ triple the bill. One-off central government funding is how facilities for major sports tournaments are generally built and both governments have already said they will contribute.

The GAA could also chip in a bit more, even if this suggestion is apparently outrageous.

Casement Park in Belfast , Ulster GAA ha announced that it will commence necessary maintenance and pre-enabling works ahead of the Development works for the new Casement park.
Casement Park in west Belfast. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN


The DUP split over the sea border is settling down into MP Sammy Wilson and Lords Dodds, Morrow and Browne on one side, and pretty much everybody else (so far) on the other.

The rebels are always careful to praise the leadership for doing its best, despite failing miserably. This is the intended outcome of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s management style, whereby everyone is pandered to for years until they can awkwardly agree to differ, in public, indefinitely. It might even work, although it is hard not to compare it wistfully to the approach of Peter Robinson, who made everyone submit a signed resignation to keep in his desk.


Economy Minister Conor Murphy made the announcement at City of Derry Airport
City of Derry Airport outside Derry city (Liam McBurney/PA)

The public service air route between Derry and London has been secured for another year, with £2 million provided jointly by Stormont and Westminster.

If that seems like a lot, it should be judged against the £2.3 million Stormont is still giving Westminster every year to cut long-haul air passenger duty to zero. This was arranged in 2011 to save the Continental service to New York, yet that service was cancelled in 2017 and nothing has replaced it.

Northern Ireland’s only current long-haul route is Easyjet’s thrice-weekly service to Hurghada, the airport for Egypt’s Red Sea resorts. Subsidising this at the rate of £87 per passenger must be Stormont’s strangest waste of money - a title for which there is considerable competition.


Stormont Education Minister Paul Givan said he has submitted funding bids of £528 million to the Department of Finance
DUP Education Minister Paul Givan (Rebecca Black/PA)

“Schools should not be used for cultural wars to take place or as a place to further political ideologies,” DUP education minister Paul Givan has said. He was responding to a media question about the sex education curriculum brought in by the government last year in Stormont’s absence.

Givan was not asked about the Lisburn council motion he had passed in 2007, requiring the council to write to all secondary schools in its area asking what their plans were to develop teaching material on “creation, intelligent design and other theories of origin”.

Of course, that was aeons ago and the minister’s views may have evolved.


The owner of a £1.8 million historic home on Belfast’s Malone Park has been fined £15,000 for unauthorised demolition works. The 1925 arts and crafts house, in a conservation area, has had its roof and many other elements removed.

This is a large fine for an offence of this nature in Northern Ireland, yet it is still less than most residents of Malone Park would spend on a kitchen worktop. To have any deterrent effect, penalties must be linked to ability to pay.


There has been some interest in whether the DUP will copy Sinn Féin and title its deputy first minister the ‘joint first minister’. This distraction seems to have finally killed off an earlier argument about whether ‘deputy’ should be capitalised. Once a matter of close attention, the practice now appears to be entirely random, even in official communications and from the DUP itself.

It has taken 25 years to reach this stage of maturity in Northern Ireland politics, but everyone has finally stopped worrying about who has a small D.