Top Issue 1-2024

9 July 2023

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Unconditional return to power sharing is the only rational decision for the DUP

The cost of living emergency and public finances crisis presents a decisive crossroads for the DUP. The party leadership position is untenable. In these circumstances an unconditional return to power sharing is the only rational decision to make.

An endemic crisis is now consuming regional public finances in the north of Ireland. It is being driven by growing inflationary pressures, a deficit of hundreds of millions in public spending capacity, and the savage budget recently introduced by the Tory government. 

The continued absence of the power sharing Executive and Assembly due to the DUP's senseless blocking of the political institutions means that departmental officials are being forced to plan cuts in public expenditure, more extreme than anything during the depths of the Tory imposed 2010 austerity programme. 

The current situation has been shaped by chronic underinvestment in the north due to successive negative decisions made by British ministers in London. One in five children are living in poverty. Low wages and precarious work are structural characteristics of the regional economy.  

It is widely recognised that the scale of reductions in public expenditure currently allocated to the north by the British exchequer will have a devastating effect on regional public services, and especially for the most vulnerable in society. 

Senior civil servants are predicting that cuts within the 2023/’24 budget will cause long-term and irreparable damage to the viability of local services and infrastructure. 

Public services are already failing to meet the basic needs of citizens. The Tory government knows this to be true. So with the next budget cycle due to commence in October, unless an Executive and financial investment package are in place by September another Tory austerity budget will become inevitable with even more shocking consequences. 

In effect large parts of public sector activity are being halted. The cumulative effect of these decisions will be worse for the most marginalised: That means the same families affected by the sudden end to holiday hunger payments for children by the Department of Education will also lose out due to the cuts to youth groups’ funding, and the social welfare provision of discretionary support imposed by the Department for Communities.  

Funding for the ‘Engage’ and ‘Extended Schools Programme’ has ended. The next 

impacted will be funding for school buildings. Proposed hospital waiting lists initiatives will not be implemented and so the already unprecedented high waiting lists will become even longer in Emergency Departments, and access to GP practices will worsen. 

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs faces the biggest budget cut with potentially devastating consequences for services relating to food standards, farming, environmental protection, fisheries and forests. 

Wages for key workers in education, health and social care have already decreased in net terms year on year. Increased inflation and interest rates have reduced pay levels even further within the region’s existing low wage economy. 

During the past year a properly functioning power sharing Executive could have managed the 2022/’23 budget more effectively and avoided losing almost £300 million from future funding allocations. But the DUP's refusal to allow a restoration of the political institutions prevented that from happening. The DUP boycott has opened the door to the imposition of these devastating Tory cutbacks.

It continues to arrogantly justify its boycott because the party remains opposed to the arrangements agreed under the Protocol between the British government and European Commission for managing the new trading realities created by the Brexit catastrophe - a policy which the DUP itself championed. 

Earlier this year the Windsor Framework agreed final adjustments on implementation of the Protocol.

The associated potential economic opportunities are already beginning to open up. Recently published official figures and economic trends demonstrate that the north's regional economy has in fact "outperformed the UK average". 

The Protocol is now a concluded matter. Former senior civil servant, Andrew McCormick observed in a recent article, that by agreeing to the Windsor Framework the British government has made it very clear there will be no renegotiation of the deal. He has challenged the British government to come clean with the DUP and make clear nothing more is deliverable.

But McCormick also sets a challenge for the DUP; he says once the party decides to stop being strung along by promises it knows are undeliverable, the party leadership must decide whether it will allow power sharing to be restored. 

Some within the DUP may have already given up on power sharing and are playing for time; others may still not have made up their minds. 

Meanwhile the DUP's cynicism and lack of leadership is creating serious societal damage. Its blocking of the Executive, Assembly and North/South Ministerial Council is having real world consequences.

Last week while engaging with local people in a small neighbourhood in my South Antrim constituency the perfect storm of challenges impacting on workers and families was laid bare repeatedly: A young mother now unemployed because the Engage Programme has ended: Another mother trying to locate community-based autism support services: Parents whose adult son with complex special needs had lost his access to a social worker and lifeline care package: A male nurse with decades of service in the NHS whose net take home pay is less today than seven years ago: The family in distress because their daughter with special educational needs has still not been allocated a place in a special school setting for the new school year: Other neighbours were seething with anger at the intransigence of the DUP and cruelty of the Tories.

Unsurprisingly, a belief is increasingly being expressed that the DUP does not want power sharing re established unless it dictates the terms.  

The behaviour of the DUP is failing workers, families and small businesses. The public services upon which our community relies are being dismantled in plain sight. Everyone is being affected regardless of background. The existing financial, economic and social hardships transcend sectarian divisions.

So if DUP politicians do in fact visit constituents on their doors, and in their actual neighbourhoods, then surely they are bound to hear about the pressures and worries gripping working families. 

All this brings into focus fundamental questions about the DUP's intentions. 

The DUP leader knows there is no more to be negotiated between the British government and European Commission. It is a fact that his party's blocking of the political institutions is deepening the crisis for public finances and public services.

The cost of living emergency and public finances crisis presents a decisive crossroads for the DUP. The party leadership position is untenable. In these circumstances an unconditional return to power sharing is the only rational decision to make.

Failing to do so would represent another catastrophic miscalculation, matched only by the DUP's support for Brexit - and look how that has turned out. 

Watch this space...  

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