The DUP’s £1bn deal with the Conservatives represents a “strong foundation upon which to build long-term prosperity for Northern Ireland”, a leading economist has claimed.
But Dr Esmond Birnie has urged politicians to ensure they do not squander the historic opportunity by “repeating the mistakes of the past”, citing recent agreements which were never fully implemented.
The former Ulster Unionist Party MLA, who is now senior economist at Ulster University, said his initial reaction to the terms of the DUP-Tory pact was “favourable”.
He told the News Letter: “The good part is that it is balanced and leans towards investment to promote long-term prosperity, rather than money to be used for short-term consumption.
“There was always a danger it could be simply a sticking plaster approach and thankfully that doesn’t appear to be the case.”
Dr Birnie said the commitment to provide £400m to deliver infrastructure projects such as the York Street interchange was “significant”, especially given that Northern Ireland’s annual infrastructure budget is around £1bn.
He also described the additional £150m to provide high speed broadband as “another positive development” for the Province.
Some critics have said the £200m pledged to the health service in Northern Ireland will amount to “a drop in the ocean”, but Dr Birnie felt that was “the wrong way to look at it”.
He added: “The money is not there to tackle immediate problems in the health service.
“Thanks to a number of reviews, most recently the Bengoa report, we know what we have to do about the health service.
“We have to get the right balance between primary care and acute care, because up until now our focus has been on acute care when it should be the other way round.
“It should be about preventing people from getting sick before they arrive at the emergency department or need an operation.
“There are some tough decisions to be made about moving hospital services and shutting some services down.
“We know what to do, but what has been holding us back is that the health service is constantly in crisis mode and trying to keep the waiting lists down.
“This money will not meet all the needs of the health service, but it has the potential to be a good foundation to build upon.”
Dr Birnie said he was hopeful the pact with the Tories would not amount to a “wasted opportunity”.
He added: “We have had a number of agreements in Northern Ireland, most notably the Fresh Start Agreement and Stormont House Agreement, where there have been problems with implementation.
“If this deal can be implemented in the way it has been written down, then it would represent a good way forward and could benefit many people, including those of future generations.”