George Osborne and David Cameron have been arguing for months that the government needs to address ballooning national debt and restrict the deficit. And Despite all of Labour’s arch implications that the current Conservative leadership understands nothing about economics, it transpires Alistair Darling is set to announce a budget which seeks to constrain public spending. The last bastion of serious political resistance to the idea that Britain cannot afford to continue a binge of borrowing and spending, as a means to counter recession, appears to have been overcome.
Although not, it would seem, in Northern Ireland, where Finance Minister Nigel Dodds clearly believes that if there is any pain to be experienced in the UK, we will be exempt from it.
Danny Kennedy, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, apparently understands the likely implications of the impending budget. He believes that Northern Ireland will be expected to deliver its share of efficiency savings. He estimates the likely cost to be approximately £600 million, which must be trimmed from the block grant. This might be needed because Labour has mismanaged the economy, but it is, nevertheless, a necessity and the executive will need to re-examine its Programme for Government in the light of changed circumstances.
Alliance agrees, although its sums are slightly different and the SDLP, whilst it has not quite grasped that addressing a budget deficit does not mean that saved monies can simply be spent elsewhere, has at least been thinking about how efficiencies might be achieved.
Which leaves the carve-up coalition partners and if the economy has crossed their minds at all, it has served only to entrench their sense of entitlement to exactly the same sized slice of an ever diminishing pie.
Dodds maintains that his party will resist any attempt by this government, or any Conservative government which is likely to succeed it, to ensure that Northern Ireland delivers its share of efficiencies in order to lessen strain on the public purse.
It would be interesting to know how Dodds suggests that the UK government should go about addressing the financial crisis which it faces. Does he believe that it is tenable for Britain to continue to increase spending at the current rate, given the level of debt which is already being carried? I would be genuinely interested to know, because unless he has some rather unique insights, out of step with the rest of political and economic thinking, it is tempting to reach one of two conclusions.
1) Dodds neither knows nor cares about the national finances, so long as money keeps flowing to Northern Ireland.
2) Dodds does realise that spending needs to be restricted, but he thinks that the rest of the United Kingdom should tighten its belt and Northern Ireland should be exempt.
Either supposition would beg the perennial question: is the DUP’s unionism really tethered in any meaningful way to an affection for, or desire to participate properly in, the United Kingdom?
My suspicion is that Dodds would probably lean towards option 2. Which he would no doubt rationalise through the usual special pleading (normally to be accompanied by a goodly dollop of insinuation that the British government is to some degree responsible for Northern Ireland’s woes).
His former leader, of course, actually placed accountability for 30 years of financial retardation squarely at the feet of various Westminster administrations,in the process of advancing a similar argument. Not a mention of republican violence.