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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The high price of Stormont's slow pace

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK not to have struck a budget so far, and is facing huge spending cuts. Yet the leisurely pace of business at Stormont seems a world away from the frantic cauldron that the Dáil has become.

Last Monday, for instance, time was set aside for a Stormont debate on the legacy of Lord Craigavon, Northern Ireland's first prime minister. Was his remark about "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people" an example of bigoted sectarian thinking that blighted the new state's prospects, as Sinn Féin hinted? Or was it taken out of context, as the DUP's Mervyn Storey argued. After all, Craigavon was only responding to Eamon de Valera's contention that the republic was a Catholic state.

There is, as the SDLP's Conall McDevitt is fond of saying, a conversation to be had here. But is it a conversation that should be held at taxpayers' expense among 108 MLAs, each paid £43,000 (€50,000) plus expenses to legislate for present problems? Shouldn't this issue, like many others raised in the assembly, be best left to think tanks and the letters pages of newspapers? Surely the MLAs and their armies of staff would be better discussing spending plans? Nobody could imagine a leisurely debate about De Valera happening in the Dáil. That is the difference between a sovereign state, which has to pay its debts or face ruin, and a regional assembly, whose main task is to distribute a budget decided at Westminster. The Irish government has to cut spending whatever the electoral consequences; in the north there's always time to weigh your options.

There was a collective intake of breath last week when The Irish Times's Gerry Moriarty reported that public-sector pay in the republic is, apart from the police, way higher than in Northern Ireland. However, the huge scale of Stormont, the slowness of its operation and the ease with which it is distracted all need to be borne in mind when making north-south comparisons.

Some of the differentials uncovered by Moriarty are, admittedly, scandalous. It is difficult to know why nurses, doctors and teachers are paid more south of the border, though the cost of living is somewhat lower in the north. The differential in rewards for hospital consultants goes far beyond a cost-of-living allowance. In the North, their rates of pay have come in for criticism, but in the republic they are paid about twice as much.

The figures aren't given for dentists but, given the number of southerners who find it worthwhile to travel north to have dental work done, it must also be considerable.

Some northern dentists even pick up southern customers at the train station.

At the lower end of the scale, the jobseekers' allowance south of the border is more than double the miserly £65 paid in Northern Ireland. For much of the province's history the level of social support was higher than in the republic, but that situation has largely reversed. In the past, unionist politicians, including John Taylor, used to campaign against southern students coming north to take advantage of free university education. Now the traffic is the other way, and this year the southern authorities reduced the value of A-levels relative to the Leaving Certificate to reduce the numbers looking south, as UK university fees increased to £9,000 a year.

The fact that TDs earn 83% more than MLAs must be weighed against the fact that there are proportionately fewer of them. In the republic there is one TD per 26,506 people; in the North it is one MLA per 15,700, using population figures of 4.4m in the republic and 1.8m in the North.

A taoiseach receives 70% more than Northern Ireland's first minister (£111,183) but then Peter Robinson is not a head of state and has a deputy first minister shadowing him on exactly the same pay in a joint office referred to as OFMDFM. The nationalist/unionist carve-up means that many other posts are duplicated. For instance when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness set out to appoint a Victims' Commissioner they ended up appointing four to avoid falling out, though one has since resigned. Finance was not a serious consideration when set against the achievement of communal balance.

The OFMDFM now employs more people than 10 Downing Street, and is about level pegging with the White House. Eight DUP and eight Sinn Féin advisers have to agree before any item even reaches the powersharing executive's agenda.

The cost of maintaining separate facilities for the two communities in some areas – ranging from GP surgeries to schools – is one factor pushing public spending to 126% of the UK average, and means that each person in the North is currently subsidised by the UK exchequer to the tune of more than £60 a week. In 2006, a Deloitte report commissioned by the UK government estimated duplication of facilities due to sectarian division cost £1.5 billion a year. This year Oxford Economics found that segregated education alone cost £1 billion a year, at a time when there are 50,000 surplus places, amounting to one sixth of total capacity, in the province's schools.

The comparatively high public-sector pay in the south is largely as a result of benchmarking against the booming private sector in the Celtic tiger years. It seems anomalous now that the boom has turned to bust. But in the North there was no boom, and average public-sector wages have long outstripped the private sector.

Another legacy of the Troubles that is now coming under scrutiny is the battery of locally appointed quangos, commissions and consultative bodies set up to provide local input under direct rule. With the huge apparatus at Stormont these are now difficult to justify. Alex Attwood of the SDLP and Jonathan Craig of the DUP have formed an unofficial high-pay commission to hunt down top earners in such bodies.

Craig uncovered 967 people on over £100,000 a year, and 3,430 earning between £50,000 and £100,000. Attwood, whose social development ministry covers housing, found that many housing associations paid similar wages, boosted by luxury cars and other perks, to their chief executives.

The legal-aid budget, another relic of the Troubles, is 20% higher per capita than elsewhere in the UK. It is expected to cost £94m this year. With many barristers earning up to £1.4m from legal aid alone, it is an obvious area for cuts, and new procedures to reduce the number of cases coming before the courts.

All this spending and all these extra bodies, covered by a block grant and not by loans, gives Stormont considerable scope to reallocate spending without cutting too painfully into essential areas. So far the executive has been moving in slow motion as it searches for consensus. Where it can't find consensus it has settled for delay.

In fairness, both Robinson and McGuinness, whose personal chemistry has improved, are trying to push change. Robinson has spoken in recent interviews of a need to move political debate away from flags and onto jobs.

Where Northern Ireland's Troubles were once seen as a drag on the whole island, Robinson believes the republic's economic woes could now give the north a bad name. "What happens in the Irish republic will have an impact in Northern Ireland," he says.

"If people in America hear that the Irish economy is in trouble they don't often discern that that doesn't mean Northern Ireland, and therefore it is safe to come to Northern Ireland," he told the BBC's Noel Thompson last week. The first minister was trying not to look smug as the euro continued to sink against the pound.

November 29, 2010
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on November 28, 2010.

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