Sam McBride: Clumsy clash over cash reveals how vulnerable this Executive will be
With the detail of the deal to restore Stormont known since last Thursday night and the Executive having already been reformed on Saturday, Boris Johnson’s visit to Stormont yesterday was almost ceremonial.
The one major outstanding question of substance for the prime minister was the scale and nature of his government’s financial commitment under the agreement.
What Mr Johnson said – and what he didn’t say – not only failed to answer that question, but may have raised some concern in Stormont’s Department of Finance as to how the deal’s gargantuan wish list is going to be funded.
The prime minister refused to give any figure for Treasury commitment to pay for the agreement.
That could simply be because the details of how much each commitment will cost have not yet been calculated.
If that is the case and promises of major expenditure have been made without even knowing how much money will be needed or who will pay for it, that would in itself undermine the deal’s claim that this will be a new era of Stormont spending where taxpayers’ money is spent carefully and only when necessary.
But if Mr Johnson’s reluctance to name a figure was purely because the final bill has yet to be calculated, he could have at least given an outline commitment that the government would fund key elements of the deal.
Instead, he referred to Barnett consequentials – money which Northern Ireland would be getting anyway based on a percentage of increased public expenditure in England, regardless of the deal.
The sense that there is now a breakdown between Stormont and Whitehall over who is paying for what was reinforced last night when Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill said in their first joint statement that after them signing up to the deal, “funding must follow”.
Mrs Foster spoke of “significant and sustained investment, not just this year but over a number of years” while Ms O’Neill said “quite simply, we need the money to make it happen”.
In an inauspicious start for the new administration, both women also found themselves publicly contradicting what DUP Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots said about whether there will be water charges.
Mr Poots made the suggestion, alongside the possibility of raising rates bills, in what was suggestive of a Stormont which would operate with more fiscal responsibility than the old approach of a left-wing spending policy alongside a right-wing taxation policy.
His comments on the Nolan Show seemed to chime with what Mrs Foster had told the Today programme about an hour earlier when she said that “now we need to look also at ways in which we can raise revenue and also pay back to the UK and that’s what we want to do – we want to make sure that pay our way as citizens of the United Kingdom ...”
But by yesterday afternoon both Ms O’Neill and Mrs Foster were distancing themselves from the idea of water charges.
It is almost impossible to believe that the DUP and Sinn Fein will now back out of this agreement and face an election on that basis.
However, there are still twin dangers in this dispute.
In what was meant to be its honeymoon period, this reluctant coalition is at risk of being split over an issue which should have been resolved last week and which does not reflect well on anyone involved.
Perhaps more importantly, if this dispute drags on without resolution a public which in many cases was cynical about what a new Stormont could deliver may feel it was mis-sold this deal.
That ought to alarm the NIO because it was a lack of public support for Stormont which forced Sinn Fein into its decision to topple devolution three years ago.