Tuesday, 7 April 2009

SDLP's economy 'discussion document'. Worth doing what it says on the tin?

The SDLP does not agree with Peter Robinson’s assessment that the Programme for Government remains applicable, no matter how economic conditions might change. The party has published a discussion document (PDF) which it claims would deliver an extra £400 million with which to tackle recession in Northern Ireland.

I must confess that I do not have the stomach tonight to delve into detail contained within the report’s 65 pages. And I’m sure there will be latitude for other parties to dispute the SDLP’s sums. Casting an eye over the summary of bullet points, however, it is clear that the party has at least been considering how a PfG, altered to take into account economic difficulties, might look.

There is also some evidence that Mark Durkan’s party recognises that expenditure must be cut, certainly if money is to be found to fund other spending priorities. The document seeks a moratorium on civil service recruitment and proposes freezing recruitment and promotion within the higher grades. That represents at least an acknowledgment of the need to address the burden of our bloated public sector.

Sports fans might ruefully wonder why the SDLP did not throw its weight behind the proposals for a multi-purpose stadium in Belfast earlier. Its report shows signs that the realisation is dawning, within the party, that a city centre venue would offer by far the most comprehensive economic benefits to Northern Ireland. Opponents of the Maze stadium site were making these arguments a number of years ago. The NITHC land which is suggested here as a suitable place to construct an arena has not, to my knowledge, been widely considered before.

Jim Nicholson suggests that the SDLP’s document is ‘only a start’ as regards filling the ’black hole in Northern Ireland’s budget’. If spending needs to be cut out of necessity, how can the saved money, which did not exist in the first place, be diverted into a £400 million stimulus package?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the answer were contained somewhere within the text? If it is, perhaps a helpful, and tenacious, reader might like to point it out.

Otherwise this report should be welcomed, because it attempts to deliver savings without inflicting unnecessary pain. And it makes an innovative suggestion to site the national stadium in a new city centre location, which deserves consideration. What are the chances that certain DUP representatives will be more preoccupied with the proposal to open bookmakers on a Sunday?

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