Is Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Secretary, really going to cause a needless financial catastrophe just to pressurise the DUP?
Stormont’s top civil servants clearly consider it possible.
Last week it emerged they had been discussing drastic budgeting scenarios if the devolutionary limbo drags on. Their seriousness can be gauged by the fact discussion touched on a redundancy scheme for civil servants.
Heaton-Harris’s plan is to force the DUP back to work by doing the bare minimum to keep the public sector lights on, while insisting he will do nothing more if the lights flicker out.
To that end he has passed an emergency budget for the next 18 months. It contains almost enough money but lacks much of the flexibility essential to shuffle funds around to where they are needed.
The trade union for senior civil servants has written to Heaton-Harris pleading with him for ‘ministerial direction’ so that Stormont officials are not left to cut spending and public services on their own. The union did not use the phrase ‘direct rule’ but its plea could mean little else
Budgetary discipline broke down during last year’s caretaker executive period, causing a record unauthorised overspend of £650 million. Strictly speaking, the rules require this to be chopped off the following year’s budget. Heaton-Harris has largely decided to observe this, meaning Stormont’s budget will drop 6.4 per cent in real terms in this financial year, then rise 1.9 per cent the year after.
This “dramatic V-shaped profile”, as Northern Ireland’s Independent Fiscal Council has described it, means a calamitous, gratuitous disruption to public services. The effects are already being felt in the community and voluntary sectors. It could all be smoothed over with little more than the stroke of a treasury pen.
The First Division Association, the trade union for senior civil servants, has now written to Heaton-Harris pleading with him for “ministerial direction” so that Stormont officials are not left to cut spending and public services on their own.
The union did not use the contentious phrase “direct rule” but its plea could mean little else.
The letter is unprecedented, indicating its seriousness and also raising unionist eyebrows, as there was no similar plea when Sinn Féin collapsed devolution for three years. This time is felt to be different, however, not because Sinn Féin’s walkout was any better but because northern secretaries during those years quickly revealed they would never let the lights go out. Deadlines were always moved, money was always found and one-off ministerial directions were always given. It became a running joke.
Last year it looked like Heaton-Harris would become another punchline. From his appointment that September by short-lived prime minister Liz Truss, the new Northern Secretary insisted he would observe the legal deadline to call an election when Stormont’s caretaker period expired on October 28th. He become increasingly insistent as the deadline approached, half-convincing many observers he was serious, only to postpone his decision at the last second. This led to widespread ridicule, and Heaton-Harris’s authority appeared to ebb away. Further postponements in January and February, the latter effectively indefinite, should have cemented a reputation as a bluffer.
Yet Heaton-Harris has managed to rebuild his credibility in Northern Ireland, to the point where his threats are half-believed again.
As a former chairman of the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers, his support for the Windsor framework has been useful to prime minister Rishi Sunak and removed any sense of him being Truss’s lingering lame duck.
As a former chief whip, Heaton-Harris can project a gnomic sense of the dark political arts, something he shares with his predecessor Julian Smith, who secured 2020′s New Decade, New Approach deal to restore devolution.
The likeliest outcome is that funds and flexibilities will be pledged at the critical moment, as usual, easing the DUP back into Stormont once May’s council elections are safely out of the way
It is a testament to the Northern Secretary’s repaired reputation that he is seen as deciding Stormont’s fate. In reality Sunak will make the final call.
Although punishing the DUP may be popular in Downing Street, it remains implausible that Northern Ireland would be plunged into an avoidable budgetary crisis after all the effort to prevent a protocol crisis. The likeliest outcome is that funds and flexibilities will be pledged at the critical moment, as usual, easing the DUP back into Stormont once May’s council elections are safely out of the way.
The DUP may even be allowed to take credit for saving the budget. Returning to Stormont in triumph with a suitcase of cash is something of a party tradition. This would be trickier with Sinn Féin as the largest party but the DUP could attempt it by picking the Department of Finance.
The post of minister of finance was viewed as humdrum until Peter Robinson, the DUP’s former leader and current adviser, portrayed it as akin to chancellor of the exchequer. Sinn Féin selected it in the last two executives but is rumoured to have reconsidered its worth. Republicans may let the DUP pick finance and boast about writing a budget, although a DUP minister would merely be cosigning the executive’s cheques.
It would hardly be the first time a party in Northern Ireland had sought praise for solving a problem it caused.