Waiting for the Stormont bubble to burst

The Stormont executive got back together in January, but is already showing signs of decay. Credit: Presseye

“We’re living in the bubble of illusion...” - that was observation of a Stormont insider to me a few weeks ago.

Parliament Buildings has hummed back into life with Assembly meetings and committee hearings. A feeling of genuine relief and enthusiasm pervades the long silent corridors of power.

Politicians are clearly buoyed by the hope that things can finally get done after three years of stagnation and stalemate.

But all of it belies one basic reality – nobody knows how to pay for it all.

That was what my Stormont source meant – laudable political aspirations are about to slam up against harsh financial realities.

Devolution was restored in January when the parties agreed to support the New Decade, New Approach Agreement, but in truth this document could have been named the Take-It-Or-Leave-It deal.

Then Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tánaiste Simon Coveney stood in front of a flood-lit Parliament Buildings and effectively dared the parties to reject the two governments’ best guess on how to resolve the disputes which had, up until then, prevented Stormont’s return.

It was a gamble, yes - but a well crafted one.

Part One of the document lists priorities of the Restored Executive. It reads like a list for Santa. Top of it was a commitment to settle the health workers strike – an immediate priority back in January and a pressure point for the political parties.

But there were also commitments on waiting lists, establishing a new Medical School at Magee campus, resolving the teachers’ strike, a new framework on special educational needs, increasing police numbers – the list went on and on.

None of it costed.

To be fair, the parties had been cautious. In the weeks leading up to the deal, there were numerous discussions about what financial commitments would underpin any political agreement.

But the exact amount the UK government was prepared to make available wasn’t made clear until after the Assembly had met and an Executive reformed.

On the day Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar arrived at Stormont for a lap of honour to mark the return of devolution, the Secretary of State met with the Executive ministers to outline how much money was to be handed.

It didn’t go well.

As always there was smoke and mirrors around the real figure. The government it totaled the package at £2bn pounds. But the NI Department of Finance disagreed.

One billion of the figure was as a result of so-called Barnett Consequentials (money due to come to Northern Ireland as its slice of the UK funding pie). A further £240m was already promised, but unspent, Confidence and Supply funds.

So in real terms, the amount of new money to cover the deal was £760m.

Considering the fact that the cost of dealing with hospital waiting lists alone is estimated at £700m to £1bn, it was clear the New Decade, New Approach agreement was over-promising and under-resourced.

Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy. Credit: Presseye

Finance Minister Conor Murphy didn’t pull his punches.

“Woefully inadequate,” was his verdict.

So now it’s stalemate.

Executive ministers say they have delivered on their part of the bargain by doing the deal and forming a government. They say it is up to the government to stump up the money to pay for the commitments contained in their agreement.

But that’s not the only problem.

On Monday, Conor Murphy revealed there is a £600m shortfall between how much Stormont needs and how much it expects to get.

To be clear, this is to cover what’s described as “inescapable pressures” - in other words, what’s needed just to stand still.

Will NI get a big share when new Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivers his Budget? Credit: PA

The Finance Minister travels to London today to meet with the Treasury Secretary Steve Barclay, but there’s no expectation of any big announcement of more money.

The hope instead is Northern Ireland will get a big share in what’s expected will be a big spend budget by new-in-post Chancellor Rishi Sunak on 11 March.

Conor Murphy is due to deliver his budget a couple of weeks later. At that point, the Executive will know the full financial picture and the scale of the difficult decisions which lie ahead for our ministers will become clear.

“That will be the real acid test of the maturity of this Executive,” one source said.

It could be the bubble of illusion is about to burst.