Sam McBride: Five things we learned at the Stormont Assembly this week (but you probably missed)

From telemedicine outlasting the pandemic to the Finance Minister worried about binge spending – our political editor Sam McBride examines five developments at the Northern Ireland Assembly this week which you probably haven’t seen reported.
Robin Swann, left, made clear that phoning the doctor is going to outlast the pandemic, while Conor Murphy made a public plea to the TreasuryRobin Swann, left, made clear that phoning the doctor is going to outlast the pandemic, while Conor Murphy made a public plea to the Treasury
Robin Swann, left, made clear that phoning the doctor is going to outlast the pandemic, while Conor Murphy made a public plea to the Treasury


Martina Anderson got stuck into the DUP in the chamber this week, with allegations of corruption around RHI.

The Sinn Fein firebrand told MLAs: “We know only too well that it’s not only Tory British ministers who use power to do favours for their friends – £500m of public money went up in RHI smoke here, literally, so that some of that was done for their friends [sic]”.

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In doing so, however, Mrs Anderson exposed her own tenuous grasp on the facts of RHI.

As readers of this newspaper will be aware, £500m was the projected overspend on RHI at the point when Stormont fell. But it had not yet been spent and has since been slashed by retrospectively cutting subsidies to such an extent that there is now a huge underspend on the money available to Stormont from the Treasury.

As C P Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian for more than half a century, said: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

Phone a doc

Having inherited a health system described by the Royal College of Surgeons as “at the point of collapse” even before the pandemic, Health Minister Robin Swann has been increasingly explicit that there will be radical long-term changes in how medical services operate.

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The scale and speed of how hospitals and GPs have transformed their work has been a demonstration of what is possible – and an opportunity for otherwise controversial reforms to be pushed through quickly.

Speaking in the Assembly on Tuesday, the UUP minister said that medics had “adopted the use of technology like never before”. He made clear: “Although face-to-face consultations will always be necessary in some cases, and, indeed, are valued by clinicians and patients, I am reassured that virtual clinics and telephone triage are widely embedded in primary and secondary care services. We cannot go back to the way in which we delivered services before Covid-19. There is now an opportunity to mainstream the recent innovations, and I am determined that we will take that opportunity.”

Unemployment and instability

There has been considerable coverage of Diane Dodds’ warning in the Assembly on Monday that “any further lockdowns in the local economy and the end of the furlough scheme will see a significant rise in unemployment”.

Speaking bluntly, she said: “We potentially could experience unemployment levels such as we haven’t seen since the early 1990s.” For context, unemployment hit almost 13% in 1993 but was at 2.3% at the end of last year.

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However, there has been little comment on one significant factor in the dates cited by the economy minister. A return to early 1990s unemployment  would mean the greatest number of people out of work since the end of the Troubles.

Unemployment was never the main driver of violence, but it was one factor which added to instability and pushed some people towards paramilitaries. This economic crisis is now coming at a point of constitutional upheaval from Brexit, the centenary of partition, and after years of deepening political hostility.

planning, what planning?

There is a building financial problem which might seem esoteric in this time of health and economic crisis, but will have implications long into the future.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy this week told the Assembly that Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision to cancel his planned autumn budget had made it more difficult for him to plan for next year’s Stormont budget. But he said that an even greater concern was that the uncertainty over whether the Treasury’s Comprehensive Spending Review – which gives Stormont a sense of what its budget will be for the next few years – would go ahead this year.

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The Institute for Government has argued that it makes no sense to conduct long-term financial planning at a time of deep uncertainty.

But there is a particular problem in Northern Ireland. For three years, there was no devolution and bare-bones budgets were created by officials and passed on the nod by Westminster.

Ten months after devolution returned, there is still only a one-year budget – and now the possibility of a second one-year budget. That means four, and perhaps five, years of no medium-term, let alone long-term, financial planning with practical implications not just for huge government projects, but for the ability of the public sector to negotiate longer-term and more efficient contracts with suppliers.

End Spend, spend, spend

This week Finance Minister Conor Murphy joined with his counterparts in Edinburgh and Cardiff to criticise the inability for devolved administrations to roll over much of their money into the next financial year if it is unspent.

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Interestingly, Mr Murphy’s argument centred on what has long been identified by some Stormont observers as a perverse incentive for departments to spend money at the end of a financial year because otherwise it will go back to the Treasury. He said the current restriction “does not encourage good financial management and risks year-end surges of spend as departments seek to ensure that budgets are maximised”.

One source with deep knowledge of Stormont suggested that Mr Murphy may be particularly concerned that some of the money given to Stormont by Treasury to deal with the pandemic just cannot be spent by April and will be sent back to London unless the rules are changed.

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