What does the budget tell us about who runs Northern Ireland?

06 March 2019 - by Anna Mercer

Two years from when the Executive last met, Northern Ireland has been awarded its third budget from the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP, which saw the allocation of our portion of the Barnett Consequential.

Now firmly in uncharted territory, with no clear governance structures to set the direction of travel, the budget has become an administrative process essential for the continuation of public services, rather than an opportunity to announce new policies.

Indeed, Bradley makes no bones about admitting this herself, stating that whilst the budget allows for stability and to continue delivering public services, it “does not remove the pressing need to have locally accountable political leaders in place to take the fundamental decisions which will secure a more sustainable future for the people of Northern Ireland.

However, whilst there was little to remark on in relation to the money side of her announcement, the Secretary of State took the opportunity to introduce two pieces of new legislation: the Energy Bill, which will address the tariffs for the Renewable Heat Incentive, and the Regional Rates Bill. She also confirmed that the derogation with respect to classification of housing associations in Northern Ireland would continue, though not without acknowledging that such policymaking is far from ideal in the long term.

All are devolved issues. This represents yet another exception made in relation to what the Northern Ireland Office is prepared to legislate on. But why these issues, at this moment in time? Not legislating would lead to significant financial consequences; therefore, one might conclude that money talks when it comes to getting legislation passed on devolved issues.

But how long can the current ad hoc approach to determining what passes as important enough to legislate on in Westminster last?

With the clock ticking towards the end-of-March deadline set down in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, the prospect of local politicians forming an Executive looks extremely unlikely, compounded by the political energy at Westminster being expended on all things Brexit.  We can expect to see an amendment to this legislation, affording more time (five months) before Bradley is legally compelled to call an election or implement direct rule.

The Secretary of State is limited to this one extension period, and with a legal challenge hanging over her, not to mention the B word, time may well be up on the current arrangements. Whatever the resolution looks like, forward-focused organisations should use the time now to focus on their asks and ensure that their issues are present in the in-tray of whoever is at the helm of this wayward ship.