Health budgets, Lough Neagh and the soaring legal aid bill: Newton Emerson on the week that was

Health budgets, Lough Neagh and the soaring legal aid bill among the topics in the news this week

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.

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings at Stormont, ahead of the debate on the budget
UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings at Stormont, ahead of the debate on the budget (Liam McBurney/PA)

THE Stormont executive normally meets every two weeks. Its final meeting before the summer recess has been cancelled, apparently due to the general election. This has left many important decisions unresolved, possibly for months, as the next scheduled meeting is in September.

Crucially, it could delay the June monitoring round, the reallocation of unspent funds between departments that takes place three times year. There is £220 million to redistribute, with the Department of Health in particular depending upon it. Other executive parties have criticised UUP health ministers for not backing the budget, despite being told they are in line for the extra funds.

Sinn Fein and the DUP might not have wanted to give the UUP grounds to either boast or complain days before polling, depending on how much money health would have received.

If so, consider the dysfunctionality of an executive that cannot divvy up a huge pot of cash under urgent priorities it has already agreed and made public. The minimum consensus its four parties should be able to manage, even during an election, is presenting the monitoring round as a win for everyone.


Environmental campaigners hold a protest at Oxford Island, Lough Neagh. Picture: MAL MCCANN
Environmental campaigners hold a protest at Oxford Island, Lough Neagh. Picture: MAL MCCANN

The Earl of Shaftesbury has offered to transfer his ownership of Lough Neagh’s lakebed to “a charity or community trust”, saying he is fed up being blamed for pollution.

The small print on this offer would need to be inspected but one undoubted benefit of ending the Earl’s feudal possession would be debunking claims he is responsible for the condition of the water. Although most of these claims are ignorant grandstanding, they distract from where the real problems lie.

Alliance environment minister Andrew Muir is unable to get his Lough Neagh action plan through the executive, reportedly because the DUP does not want to upset farmers. Sinn Fein and the UUP are hardly rushing to Muir’s defence. Perhaps this would all be clearer with the Earl out of the way.


Colum Eastwood has wisely moved on from his daft “get rid of the Tories” election message. Launching his party’s manifesto, the SDLP leader emphasised the sister-party relationship with Labour and the influence this confers with an incoming government. It is not much influence, admittedly, but nor is it zero.

Highlighting the relationship reveals a dog that has not barked. Labour’s branch in Northern Ireland would normally complain about being forbidden from running candidates, or at least raise the issue. In the past, it has campaigned against the ban and even run unofficial candidates. It stepped up this campaign last year, with a poll showing Labour could win Stormont seats.

Support for lifting the ban was voiced by members of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee. Yet there has been silence during this election campaign - presumably a diplomatic silence in the expectation of movement after the election.

That is hardly guaranteed. Lifting the ban is opposed by the Labour Party Irish Society. Its chair, Liam Conlon, is about to enter parliament, having been selected for a safe seat. He also happens to be the son of Sue Gray, Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.


The UUP is asking why the legal aid bill has risen by 40% since 2019 to an annual total of £110 million. The DUP asked for a review of the system in 2021, saying costs had become “unacceptable”.

Legal aid is paid by the Alliance-controlled Department of Justice, where a previous minister once dared to suggest radical reform. In 2010, David Ford proposed channelling the legal aid budget away from solicitors and barristers towards community-based ‘legal clinics’, a model used around the world, including such human rights hell-holes as Canada and Sweden. The legal profession was aghast and nothing was heard of it again but the idea deserves another look.


First Minister Michelle O’Neill speaks at the launch of Feile an Phobail in west Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
First Minister Michelle O’Neill speaks at the launch of Feile an Phobail in west Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

Michelle O’Neill is not getting enough credit for saying ‘Northern Ireland’.

In an election interview on BBC’s The View she referred to herself as “the first minister of Northern Ireland”, language probably more pleasing to unionists than Alliance’s proposed title of joint first minister. It may seem like a small thing or even an absurdity but it is significant enough and must be welcomed.

Although nobody should tell another person how to speak, terminological stand-offs are exhausting and this one is the most tiresome of them all.


The assembly has held a brief debate on the brain drain of students and graduates from Northern Ireland. MLAs were seemingly unaware this is a bit of a myth.

While more of our young people need to take degrees and we would benefit from having more university places, Northern Ireland is unusually good at retaining students and graduates by British and Irish standards.

Over 70% of local students starting a degree remain here to do so, the highest figure of any UK region except Scotland. Of the 30% who leave, around half come back, similar to every UK region except London. Over 90% of all students at our universities stay here to work after graduation, a figure beaten only by Scotland and Dublin.

We could do even better if Stormont would remove the cap on places, although that would also mean removing the subsidy on tuition fees.


Forestry England has announced nature restoration plans across 8,000 hectares

All four parts of the UK have missed their tree-planting targets, with Northern Ireland - the least leafy part - doing especially badly.

Just 1.6 square miles of trees were planted in total across the region last year. The target is 3.5 square miles a year throughout this decade, under the Forests For Our Future programme launched by Stormont’s Department for Agriculture in 2020.

That same year, New Decade, New Approach pledged to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland by planting a ‘Great Ulster Forest’ of 2 million native trees, equivalent to 4 square miles. In 2022, with no sign of the Great Ulster Forest, DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots said it was progressing under Forests For Our Future. In other words, there would be no extra trees but the target was being taken extra seriously. What happened to that?