Public sector reform in Northern Ireland is essential.
The Province has long been severely reliant on lavish subsidies from London.
For decades the main political parties have unanimously backed this ‘spend, spend, spend’ approach because of their determination to see stability in the only part of the UK to have experienced prolonged tribal violence.
But in an age in which growing nationalism on the fringes of the UK risks fuelling a similar nationalism in England – a country with millions of inhabitants who are already tiring of both Europe and Scotland – the indefinite nature of such lavish subsidies cannot always be guaranteed.
A shockingly high proportion of Northern Ireland’s GDP is public money. If the Province suddenly had to go it alone, it would immediately have one of the biggest budget deficits in the world.
The case for reform is therefore unarguable.
Belfast was once one of Britain’s great industrial hubs, and our talented workforce (ranging from skilled tradesmen to ex-grammar school pupils) can make it so again.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton is plainly right to say that reform both needs to be gradual, but also to become “embedded in the DNA of the public sector”.
The old days of a public sector job-for-life, regardless of competence, is unsustainable. It is wrong that Northern Irish workers on the minimum wage (of whom there are many) see their hard-earned tax contributions used to help prop up a job security in the public sector that they themselves are not getting in their private employment.
But the public sector cannot become a barren place either. It must recruit the best by paying well when such pay is deserved – be they civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors, judges and so on.
Northern Ireland needs a thriving public sector. But it needs an even stronger private sector, so that we are not utterly dependent on subsidy.