As the end of January approaches, so too does the date when the UK’s new free future will begin. It is clear that 2020 will produce a totally different political landscape than that which existed for the past three years.
At Westminster we have a Prime Minister with a majority to do what he wants and a House of Commons free from the poisonous influence of the most divisive and partisan speaker ever to preside over proceedings. In Northern Ireland we have, hopefully, a restored Assembly which will get down to work and bring political normality to N.I. which will be good for the status quo and the union.
Unfortunately after the initial few days of relief that a deal, however flawed, had been reached, signs of stress have begun to emerge. They could bring the Assembly tumbling down. Sinn Fein are not really committed to the restoration of the Assembly. After all there is no political benefit for them in making the institutions work: their long term aim of taking Northern Ireland out of the UK is not advanced by supporting the constitutional status quo. The first signs of trouble which could put the Assembly in jeopardy emerged when Sinn Fein took on the role of Finance Minister. Immediately they started to complain that the government had reneged on promises about a huge fiscal windfall to accompany the devolution deal.
It is true that the government did promise some money to deal with the immediate financial problems facing the Executive – such as nurses pay and the longer-term structural reforms needed in the health service and education. However despite foolishly including in the deal a wish list of projects and spending commitments which were never deliverable even with the most generous of allocations of money (through the block grant from central government), none of the parties had sought assurances on the amount of money which would be allocated to the newly formed Executive. Now the Finance Minister is calling foul and demanding the funding package be increased, but at a time when any negotiating leverage has gone.
The one road open to him is to refuse to strike a budget unless more money is given. This would not be the first time that a Sinn Fein minister would have tried such a tactic. Indeed the NI executive would have collapsed for this reason in 2016 had Sinn Fein not found an alternative excuse of the mishandling of the Renewable Heat Initiative. Refusal to bring forward a budget would mean that the Executive could not function and would collapse. Will Sinn Fein go that far while facing an election in the Irish Republic where they hope to obtain enough seats to get into government -who knows. The alternative is for the Sinn Fein Finance Minister to bring in a tough budget and be accused of the Trotskyites both in his own party and the Corbynite People before Profit party, (which is eating into the Sinn Fein vote), of bringing in a ‘Tory Budget’. Of course the Secretary of State could find some extra money which might allow the Finance Minister to claim that he has successfully reduced the economic pain. The political reality however is that at a time when the SNP is ready to seize upon every action they find by the government to justify their perpetual demand for another independence referendum, the government will be cautious about any further economic package to the NI Assembly. February could be a month of high drama in Belfast.
Once again the Prime Minister assured the House of Commons that he is a unionist and will have no border between NI and GB down the Irish Sea. His unionist credentials were given a boost with his decision to help Flybe stay solvent a huge decision for the economies of places like Northern Ireland. Despite the hysteria from the Green Lobby who want to see airplanes metaphorically shot out of the sky, the unionist one nation instincts of the Prime Minister resulted in a good decision for vital regional connectivity. Let’s hope he shows the same willingness to take on the EU in negotiations about our future relationship and the NI aspect of it as he has with the madhouse economic policies of the Greens on Air Passenger Duty (APD).