the notion that poor, benighted Northern Ireland is to be mercilessly squeezed by the perfidious Tories, was not unduly dented by the fact that we actually got off rather lightly, in comparison with the rest of the UK.
It made little difference that we can expect only a 6.9% cut to our block grant, while the average government department will see its spending constricted by 19%. Not even a cool £200 million, stumped up by the Treasury to reimburse investors in the ill-fated Presbyterian Mutual Society, could draw poison from local attacks on the Chancellor and his government.
Foremost among the critics are Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who allege that Osborne has broken a promise to deliver £18 billion of infrastructure improvements to Northern Ireland. That figure was thrashed out behind closed doors with Gordon Brown, in the wake of the St Andrews Agreement, but Sinn Féin and the DUP believe that their backroom deal is binding.
Speaking on the coalition‘s behalf, Secretary of State Owen Paterson insists that the target can still be met, if ministers here are prepared to pull their weight. He points out that the Executive has been handed a number of levers to keep capital spending on track.
Such faith in our politicians to take responsibility for their own difficulties is touching, but it is also naïve, and it graphically demonstrates why we have a particular problem. In truth the cuts really will hurt us more in Northern Ireland and we really are unlikely to see the fruits of an £18 billion capital spend.The cuts, I argue, are set to cause a nationwide battle and Northern Ireland will bring its own peculiar enmities to the quarrel.
The whole United Kingdom is on the brink of its very own culture war, inspired by an atavistic political hatred of Conservatives, harboured by elements within the Unions and the left. Quite simply, there are too many people who are spoiling for a fight with the new government. It was almost impossible for the coalition to devise a route to recovery which would avoid confrontation.
In Northern Ireland, the struggle has the potential to be even more rancorous, thanks to our own complicated national loyalties. Contempt for the Tories will be exacerbated by other tribal resentments. Whether one chooses to blame ‘the Brits’ generally, or the English more specifically, will depend largely on political affiliation.
The supposed severity of government cuts is not the chief source of our worries.
If the people of Northern Ireland have reason to quake in their boots, it’s not due to a 1.7% year on year cut, applied by London. The real worry is that the task of achieving that saving has been passed on to a group of politicians in Belfast who seem congenitally incapable of acting collectively or responsibly.
The Northern Ireland Executive is not a passive victim of the new economic situation: it has options. It can open new funding streams, privatise assets and strip back the cornucopia of Quangos and commissions, bequeathed to us by the peace process. The coalition government has instigated the cuts, but in Northern Ireland, the buck stops at Stormont.