Yesterday’s revelation by Direct Rule minister Ian Pearson that £2bn is to be spent on infrastructural improvements here over the next five years has been tempered by a number of factors.
Not least is that in the midst of this spending extravaganza, the British have filleted the budget to the Irish language. In terms of overall expenditure, the funding for Irish is chickenfeed but as a yardstick of the continuing anti-nationalist mentality of Mr Blair and his buddies, it tells us everything.
Four-and-a-half years ago in the Good Friday Agreement, the British pledged “resolute action” to promote the long-neglected Irish language. That’s a promise left unfulfilled but until yesterday the British had at least pretended they were willing to end discrimination against An Ghaeilge.
With the shortsighted Irish Government also gutting its budget to the cross-border Irish language body, Foras na Gaeilge, Bertie Ahern is in no position to pressure the British on this issue. However, there’s no reason why a determined Irish speaking group shouldn’t drag Mr Pearson into court to test the constitutionality of this latest breach of the Belfast Agreement.
The duplicity of the British moves on funding for Irish are evidenced in much of the smoke and mirrors surrounding yesterday’s budget.
Talk of £2bn for infrastructural improvements needs to be put in context. This money is to be borrowed from the British Treasury. The affable Direct Rule minister Ian Pearson is in fact giving the hard-pressed citizen here who has suffered from decades of Scrooge-like policies from Westminster a veritable bucket of blue steam.
Any borrowings to put right the dilapidated roads and water systems will have to be paid back — with interest.
And there’s more: to fund the loan repayments water charges will be introduced and rates will go up. Industry here, traditionally excluded from the rating system, will now be made to carry what amounts to an additional tax burden.
So much for the Invest NI claim that foreign investors will opt to locate north of the border because the derating of manufacturing concerns compensates for the lower corporate tax rates in the Republic.
Overseeing much of the new investment, in particular the conversion of former military and prison sites, will be a Strategic Investment Board which was supposed to come under the auspices of the Office of First and Deputy First Minister. The need for a £2m-a-year body to supervise the favoured public private partnerships for this work isn’t clear but any attempt to allow the UUP and SDLP alone to control the Board would be a mistake at a time when inclusion is being stressed.
The sting in the tail, of course, is that the UUP and SDLP may not occupy those lofty positions come the next elections. If that’s the case, look out for complaints about the DUP and Sinn Féin packing the Board with yes-men.
But while the boot is on the other foot, it’s crucial that Minister Pearson ensures that the new body is representative of the entire community. If it isn’t to be a case of jobs-for-the-boys, the body should become an advocate for community-based projects with the agreed objective of improving the quality of life for all.
If it becomes just another government quango then there’s little chance that it will carry forward the agenda for change — and offer a seat at the table to those previously excluded — no matter how deep its pockets.
But it’s not all bad news. The decision to levy rates on vacant properties will help end the blight on our main roads caused by developers who neglect their derelict ‘investments’. And the universities were also granted an additional £10m for research.
There’s a lesson there for the community stalwarts of the Shankill and Falls who innocently thought that the University of Ulster might face some sanctions for scrapping its peaceline university!