Towards the end of the article I consider the upshot of the debate.
Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy, the UUP’s executive members, voted explicitly against the budget. Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s social development minister, simply absented himself from the chamber, in order to avoid breaking the assembly’s ministerial code.
It’s an odd way of doing business. But then the system of government in Northern Ireland is a strange system. On the one hand the smaller parties say their voices aren’t heard in the supposed five-party coalition.
On the other hand, the larger parties claim that the UUP and SDLP are prepared to accept the trappings of power, but refuse to take responsibility for taking the difficult decisions.
Neither argument is without merit. But ironically it is the black cloud of recession which might offer a silver lining for Stormont.
Since the financial crisis, the old sectarian wrangles have receded into the background, while the economy — the focus of normal politics — has taken centre stage.
The budget exchanges at Stormont were venomous and they expose some deep political divisions, but for once those divisions aren’t along traditional lines.
The debate was certainly a depressing spectacle at times. There were some poor quality speeches and our parties are still desperately confused about where they stand on the left — right spectrum.
Still, while the parties inevitably resort to age-old antipathies come election time, there are new interests and alliances coming to the fore in the assembly.
Something resembling real politics is threatening to break out. The power-sharing structures may soon need to change in order to catch up.