Hamilton settling into his financial brief
The North’s new Minister for Finance is determined to set his own agenda
Newly appointed Minister for Finance, Simon Hamilton, was private secretary to the former minister for finance Sammy Wilson. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye/PA Wire
The transition from team member to boss can often be a difficult move in any organisation. One minute you’re everybody’s friend and the next you are telling them what to do.
But Northern Ireland’s new minister for finance believes he is ahead of the game at least in this respect.
It is officially just a week since Simon Hamilton took up one of the more challenging posts in the Northern Ireland Executive.
But Hamilton was no stranger to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) before his new appointment.
He has been a permanent fixture at the DFP for the last two years as private secretary to the former Minister for Finance Sammy Wilson.
So there is no hint of new-job trepidation from Hamilton, who was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007 as the DUP MLA for
He believes his previous job has given him a unique insight into how the Department of Finance operates from the personalities involved to simply knowing which door to open when you “want a cup of tea”.
But even he admits it will take some time for the team to get used to the fact that he is now the boss – the one calling the shots when it comes to Northern Ireland’s budgets.
He is no longer, as he puts it himself, in the role of “apprentice” to Sammy Wilson’s Lord Sugar (the nuance of which only fans of the BBC programme The Apprentice will appreciate).
Today he is a fully fledged minister for finance with all the responsibilities that entails. Some might find that overwhelming given the North’s economic issues at the
The North’s main source of funding for public expenditure – the £10.5 billion (€12.1 billion) block grant from the UK Treasury – could be vulnerable to the British government’s ongoing austerity drive.
Although the North emerged relatively well in June from the 2015-16 UK Spending Round – which sets out government spending priorities – it will have to find savings of at least 2 per cent by 2016.
But 36-year-old Hamilton, the North’s youngest ever finance minister, is genuinely enthused by his new job.
His easygoing manner disguises the fact that although he may have walked in the shadow of Sammy Wilson for the last two years, he is determined to set his own agenda now he is in charge.
He accepts that as the UK government continues to tighten its budget he could face the prospect of having fewer resources to play around with than previous ministers. But Hamilton is realistic about this.
“The people of Northern Ireland won’t accept, and nor do they deserve, less with less. They deserve more with less. That’s all very easy to say but far harder to deliver,” he admits.
His solution is reform.
“The challenge of less public spending with looming long-term tests like an aging population means that reform isn’t something we can set aside, ignore and hope it isn’t needed. This is the biggest challenge Northern Ireland faces in the next decade,” Hamilton warns.
It is a challenge the North must face against the backdrop of a fiscal deficit which topped £10.5 billion in 2010 and 2011.
Hamilton does not believe that Northern Ireland’s large public sector – which accounts for two thirds of GDP and employs one third of the local workforce – is necessarily a “deadweight”.
But he is convinced that change is needed and that it must become more efficient. His first target is likely to be tackling current high rates of sick and absence levels.
The new minister for finance also has to contend with problems he inherited such as addressing the local impact of the UK government’s welfare reform programme which will result in cuts to benefits.
In addition to the myriad of local challenges, Hamilton is also keen to continue pushing the campaign for the devolution of corporation-tax setting powers to the North.
While there is little doubt that Hamilton may have spent a lot of time in the minister for finance’s office in his previous life it is likely nothing will have prepared him for sitting on the other side of the desk.