Welfare reform debate is real politics



If Northern Ireland were independent it would be a Third World country. If it was a business it would have been bankrupt years ago and simply not exist.

Earlier this week the Department of Finance published public spending figures for the year 2011/2012, the latest available and the results are stark.

During that period public spending in Northern Ireland was £9 billion higher than tax revenues, which equates to £5,311 for every single one of us.

The rest of the UK is running at a deficit as well, as we recover from the depression but this equates to 33 per cent of Total Economic Output, as opposed to 10 per cent in the UK as a whole.

The deficit is met by taxpayers in the rest of the UK – a significant burden which is no comfort to unionists or nationalists.

I doubt very much whether many voters in England, Wales or Scotland are aware of the extent of the deficit. But if they were, which do you think they would go for to help their own economy: closing the local hospital, increasing income tax, or cutting the subvention to Northern Ireland? As to citizens of the Republic of Ireland: we now have a price on Irish unity: it is £9 billion a year: even if it were affordable to a state so recently bankrupted, just translate that into a cost per citizen and watch the appetite for a united Ireland disappear.

The news is full of stories about large amounts of money, so vast in fact that most of us just can’t grasp them. Never mind relate to them.

So let’s just think for a second about what the rest of the UK could have as an alternative to a place which is still riven with conflict and costs them £9 billion to run.

One of the UK’s biggest current investments is in upgrading the entire rail network in Great Britain. This will be spent on upgrades to stations and tracks and will create enough capacity around cities for an additional 140,000 daily rail journeys at peak times, most of which will be on. It is costing £9.4 million.

So without the massive loss we are making, and if the money were to be transferred into capital expenditure, the rest of Britain could enjoy a similar massive investment every single year.

So this is the context against which our politicians are falling out over the impact of Welfare Reform. Welfare is actually one of the areas where the deficit has grown the most. It accounts for 35 per cent of the total spent here.

It is a sad irony that 100 years ago Northern Ireland had a vibrant, booming economy with its linen industry, ship building and other heavy manufacturing. All that has gone. Today we’re left with an economy which is struggling to come to life, and a heavy dependence on the public sector, which is itself losing money and is comparatively larger than that of the old Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

There are many reasons for the decline, but chief among them has to be the conflict that has scarred Northern Ireland for so long. It has stifled investment, strangled local companies and blighted the hopes and dreams of so many of our citizens.

Rebuilding what we have and emerging as a strong, prosperous place will take time, and yes, more investment from Britain, but if that is to happen we need our political leaders to turn away from the bloodstained battlegrounds of the past: there is nothing in sectarian politics that even remotely addresses the starkness of the crisis we face as a result of this massive deficit.

I, therefore, welcome the row that has broken out between the DUP and Sinn Fein this week over Welfare Reform.

It is a refreshing injection of real politics into Northern Ireland and a welcome sign that politicians are addressing the real issues that have most impact on our lives.




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