Editorial: The prospect of big budget cuts in Northern Ireland overseen by civil servants was not plausible

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News Letter editorial on Friday April 28 2023:

​​The cut to Northern Ireland's budget as unveiled yesterday will be less obvious than was feared. The secretary of state, Chris Heaton-Harris, stepped back from simply lopping hundreds of millions of pounds off this year's block grant, and instead said that the money would be saved by using future funds allocated to NI. This means there will not be arbitrary cuts of perhaps 10% to various Stormont departments.

The saga has highlighted profound problems with politics here, above all the populist way that money is handled in the province. If something is easy to do and sounds good, it is done – free prescriptions is an example, lowering the age at which people get free transport in a time of rising life expectancy is another. But there are far more contentious spends than that. The most notable is the tens of millions of pounds a year pumped into legacy probes into the security forces (funded by British money, via legal aid).

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Think also of the money spent on 'culture', from the Irish language to the West Belfast Festival to the vast sum that is about to go to the GAA Casement stadium. Try to imagine a Tory minister such as Mr Heaton-Harris or his junior minister Steve Baker, for all their arrival in NI with the air of Brexiteer unionists, daring to cut any of that expenditure, no matter the scale of the crisis in state schools and hospitals. After all, in their quest to turbocharge Gaelic, Sinn Fein were allowed to collapse Stormont for three years without a word of criticism from Tory ministers, let alone the threats of bypassing made to unionists.

As it happens NI has long needed financial overhaul: more efficient public services and some fair revenue raising. But swingeing cuts, overseen by civil servants (because London is too scared to take control of government here lest if offends Dublin) would have been a bad political development.