Budget Reality Hits the North

This piece on budget cuts in Northern Ireland appeared in today’s Sunday Business Post

The protracted talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP to rescue the North’s power sharing government may have hinged on the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont. However, a way from Hillsborough Castle, the big issue for many in the North is the prospect of swingeing budget cuts.

Early in January, Sammy Wilson, the North’s finance minister, announced cuts in government spending of £367 million in the coming fiscal year.

The axe is due to fall most heavily in the health service, where cuts of more than £113 million are being proposed. A young doctor who works in a large hospital on the outskirts of Belfast said she was worried that the quality of patient care would suffer as a result.

‘‘Today, we had a meeting at which we were told that the trust’s budget has been compromised and that we will have to try and save money anywhere we can,” said the doctor, who did not want to be named.

‘‘But already we are not allowed to prescribe certain drugs because they are seen as too expensive and we are told to manipulate our hours so that we don’t get paid overtime.”

The North’s health minister, Michael McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), has said he will resist any budget reduction ‘‘very strongly’’.

But Brian Campfield, spokesman for the public sector trade union NIPSA, said he believed individual ministers would struggle to stop the cuts.

‘‘The parties are basically administering a budget that was given to them by Westminster and which they have very little say on,” Campfield told The Sunday Business Post.

‘‘All the main parties are tied together as part of the [power sharing] political arrangement, so it is very difficult to generate any real opposition.” Campfield sees the round of cuts as a harbinger of what awaits the North after the British general election later this year.

‘‘This is a sign of what is going to happen down the line,” he said. ‘‘Regardless of whether it is a Labour or a Conservative government, we will be paying for the bank bail-out for years to come.”

Education has often proved a controversial subject during the life of the current government. The Sinn Féin minister Caitriona Ruane’s move to abolish the 11-plus exam is opposed by many unionists and resisted by a growing number of grammar schools.

Now the Department for Education and Learning has seen its budget for next year slashed by more than £73 million.

‘‘This cut will have a significant impact on the delivery of education in Northern Irish schools,” said Lexie Scott, president of the Ulster Teachers’ Union and principal of a primary school outside Ballymena.

‘‘Northern Ireland has one of the largest class sizes in Europe. One in eight schoolchildren are educated in classes of over 30. Instead of budget cuts, we need action to be to be taken to address this.

‘‘Less than 20 per cent of newly-qualified teachers get work in Northern Ireland.

There are in excess of 8,000 unemployed teachers. We have come across many cases of people who have spent four years in third-level education training to be a teacher and a couple of years looking for work and who are now working in low-level, menial jobs.

We need to provide more employment for these teachers, not less.”

Scott acknowledged that over administration in the education sector was a major issue, but blamed the current political system in Stormont for its failure to address the problem.

‘‘Over 40 per cent of the education budget goes on school maintenance, but the Executive is so bogged down in state matters that it is not passing the necessary legislation to deal with the situation,” Scott said. ‘‘The whole process is really dysfunctional.”

The cuts in health and education have grabbed the headlines, but every department in the devolved Northern Ireland Executive will be affected by the proposed spending reductions. More than £80 million is being cut from regional development, a further £30 million from the Department for Social Development and £24million from Enterprise.

As in the Republic, the arts budget has also been slashed. Next year, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will see a £25 million drop on current spending levels. Nelson McCausland, the North’s Minister for Culture, has already indicated that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland should plan for budget cuts of about £1.1 million in 2010/11.

Belfast-based theatre company Kabosh is one of many arts organisations that rely heavily on Arts Council funding. Hugh Odling-Smee, its creative director, said some groups would find it difficult to survive the next 12 months.

‘‘There is a sense in which arts funding is much easier to cut than health or education, but at the same time it’s worth remembering that the arts budget is pretty minuscule compared to other areas,” he said. ‘‘A cut like this will make a huge difference; we are talking about people’s livelihoods here.”

The arts in the North have enjoyed a significant amount of capital spending in recent years. Belfast’s renowned Lyric Theatre is due to reopen next year following an £18 million makeover, and a similar amount is being invested in a new purpose-built arts centre, the Mac, in the city centre.

Derry’s Waterside Theatre and Playhouse have also been renovated, and smaller venues have been built across the North. Odling-Smee said he was concerned that funds might not be available to run all of these new facilities.

‘‘We are opening these great new theatres and venues, and we are trumpeting Belfast as a city of culture, but are we going to have the money to run them all?” he said. ‘‘Or will they turn into white elephants?”

However, he believes that, because of the political situation, t he large-scale protests against cuts in the Republic are unlikely to be replicated north of the border.

‘‘If we wanted to have a campaign, where would we protest?” he said. ‘‘There would be nobody in the minister’s office to protest at. The politicians we could actually appeal to are not actually focused on the budget; they are focused on the heavy brinkmanship politics. I think they would be much better off making themselves available.

‘‘Issues like policing and justice are obviously important and are not to be taken lightly, but finding a way to solve the hole in our budget is the big issue in peoples’ lives right now.”

The Hillsborough agreement will go a long way to deciding the short and medium term future of the North, but whatever happens, for Odling Smee and many across the North, stability offers the only route out of the budgetary crisis.

‘‘At some stage, we are going to have to sort out how do we pay for ourselves,” he said.

‘‘Her Majesty’s Treasury isn’t going to support us forever.

But then, for that, you need a stable government.”