The new Sinn Fein finance minister appears to be gearing up to dodge the “hard decisions” about the Province’s future, according to one of his predecessors.
DUP MP and ex-finance minister Sammy Wilson has rounded on suggestions by Mairtin O’Muilleoir that he will seek to increase the ability of the Northern Ireland Executive to borrow cash.
Mr Wilson – a former economics teacher – accused him of seeming to “pander” to socialist rivals like People Before Profit (which sensationally surged ahead of Sinn Fein to seize one of the party’s Assembly seats in its own republican west Belfast heartland three weeks ago).
The row began when the new finance minister posted a message via the website Twitter on Thursday, saying he had been in contact with the chief secretary to the Treasury in Westminster concerning “borrowing powers & [the] austerity burden”.
He later added: “Borrowing to invest when interest rates are low is good biz & good sense.”
Quizzed about how much he wanted to borrow on the BBC show The View later that night, he said: “I don’t know how much we need to borrow.”
When it was put to him he must know, since he is the finance minister, he replied that the Executive had only just had its inaugural meeting, adding: “But what I know is this – I want the power to borrow money to invest.”
He said it was important to remove the “shackles” imposed by London, which limit the Executive’s ability to obtain loans.
However, he added: “I’m not going to take a decision to borrow money from London without bringing it to everyone at the table.”
Among the things he wants to invest in are building more houses and expanding the Magee campus of the University of Ulster in Londonderry.
He comprehensively ruled out the possibility of introducing water charges in Northern Ireland as a means of raising revenue.
One suggestion he did put forward was that some higher-value properties could pay more in rates.
On Friday, Mr Wilson said the new minister appeared to be embarking on a “never never fiscal policy” – a reference to the fantasy realm of Never Neverland in Peter Pan.
Sammy Wilson said that while borrowing cash “is perfectly acceptable” in principle, “it is important to consider the costs”.
He said “there is always the danger that borrowing will be simply be used as a means of avoiding taking the hard decisions to ensure that the money currently available is spent as efficiently as possible”.
He said that economic policies of leftist parties would “ruin” the country and turn the Assembly into a “laughing stock”.
“Unfortunately in his first pronouncements, it seems that the finance minister will intend to pander to them,” he concluded.
The UUP issued a statement saying the consensus between the DUP and Sinn Fein appeared to have lasted just 24 hours.
It said the fact Mr Wilson has already voiced concerns about Sinn Fein’s economic stance – concerns which the UUP share – showed that “the honeymoon period is over” .
NI ALREADY ROUTINELY IGNORES BORROWING LIMITS ANYWAY:
Since 2002, the Reform and Reinvestment Initiative (RRI) has let the Northern Ireland Executive borrow up to £200m per year from the UK Treasury.
The Executive is permitted to borrow in order to manage short-term cash flow issues, and to fund capital investment (things like building projects). According to a Stormont briefing document from 2014, the Executive has repeatedly breached this anyway – including borrowing £375m in 2011/12, partly for a rescue deal for the Presbyterian Mutual Society.