Stormont passed a one year budget last week, the first time it has managed to do so since 2015. The budget's £13.5 billion of direct current and capital spending lists a single contribution from the Republic of Ireland, of £9.2 million for a cross-Border road.
Obviously, this is not a great time to be reminding the neighbours they have promised more. But the threads of this story continue to play out and come together. A functioning Stormont is one of the few positive features of the moment and nothing epitomises it like passing a budget in the midst of an economically calamitous epidemic.
Under the New Decade, New Approach deal, which restored devolution in January, London pledged to help address a list of financial and practical problems in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin and the DUP interpreted this as a blank cheque. Both parties appeared to have been duped when the deal turned out to contain little new money, with even that having strings attached. Tensions simmered over who was to blame and how to address the shortfall, estimated by Sinn Féin minister of finance Conor Murphy to be £600 million to maintain existing services, plus a one-off £5 billion for essential investment.
Last month, the UK government added £1 billion to Stormont’s funding to tackle coronavirus, relieving pressure and controversy long enough to get the budget through. This is a temporary reprieve. New Decade, New Approach contained review mechanisms and deadlines that are ticking away at Stormont and Westminster, reminding everyone that a fortune still has to be found. The deal’s “new approach” to finding it is for Stormont to learn the lessons of the renewable heat incentive scandal and improve its transparency, accountability and efficiency with public money. Only then might the UK treasury consider further funding.
The epidemic will quickly add pressure to a debate that has centred on health service reform and must now proceed against a background of unprecedented economic disruption. Stormont will have a much better case for saying it needs a blank cheque after all.
At that point, it should come to wider attention that New Decade, New Deal contains two blank cheques. In addition to annex A,“UK government commitments to Northern Ireland”, there is annex B, “Irish government commitments to Northern Ireland”.
This pledges Dublin to invest in all-Ireland connectivity and infrastructure, research and development, and the economic development of the northwest and Border areas specifically.
Projects cited include a high-speed rail link between Belfast, Dublin and Cork, university expansion in Derry and collaborating with wider development plans in Derry and the surrounding region.
Irish government involvement is to operate through the north-south and east-west institutions of the Belfast Agreement but primarily the North-South Ministerial Council, alongside the Stormont executive.
Nobody is expecting the Irish taxpayer to contribute to Northern Ireland's day-to-day running costs
Unfortunately, we have heard this before. Annex B contains the only cash sum promised in the entire deal document – £75 million over three years for the A5 cross-Border dual carriageway, which is where last week’s £9.2 million came from.
Dublin originally promised £400 million for the A5 as part of the 2006 St Andrews agreement, which restored devolution after its previous collapse. In 2011, Leo Varadkar, then the minister for transport, cut this to £200 million. Just over half has arrived in instalments since and the latest deal will deliver the balance by 2022.
It is hard to avoid the impression the Republic does not take its all-Ireland promises or rhetoric seriously. The A5 will cost £1.1 billion and provide 55 miles of the link between Donegal and Dublin. Irish governments built hundreds of miles of motorways elsewhere while backing out of what was meant to be a shared, symbolic project. Dribbling out a fraction of what was promised, years late and at a time when the Republic thought it would be running a large surplus, was the only commitment concrete enough to attach a number to amid all of January’s fine words.
Seen in this light, the high-speed rail line is presumably as aspirational as UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s bridge to Scotland, which did not earn a mention in New Decade, New Approach. On Derry’s university expansion, the deal says the Republic is “willing in principle to contribute”. On the wider Derry region, it is “committed to exploring opportunities for investment”. It is all waffle.
Nobody is expecting the Irish taxpayer to contribute to Northern Ireland’s day-to-day running costs or to Stormont’s core spending. Annex B is solely about cross-Border investment for mutual benefit. It has been overlooked so far because Sinn Féin’s growth in the south makes it awkward to wave a northern bill, especially at this exact moment, while the DUP is never enthusiastic about north-south co-operation.
But we may shortly be facing a time of economic rethinking and recovery when Stormont parties of all persuasions will want the Republic to put a bit more of its money where its mouth is.