Belfast: Ministers meet to grasp the nettles, including the Irish Language Act

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 13 13:37:57 UTC 2007

Ministers meet to grasp the nettles
 Wednesday, September 12, 2007

By Noel McAdam

Executive Ministers held an informal five-hour session last week to
attempt to hammer out their policy priorities and strategy for the
months ahead. First Minister Ian Paisley, Deputy First Minister Martin
McGuinness and Finance Minister Peter Robinson were present for the
meeting, which replaced plans for an Executive "away day". Several
dates had been pencilled in for the "away day" gathering but none
seemed to suit everyone, and time is now beginning to press on
Ministers. Some observers believe Ministers will soon have to get down
to the 'real politik' of horsetrading, to avoid obstacles becoming

While several issues - the National Stadium, 11-plus Irish language
act, water charges, and so on - will produce the kind of rows and
rhetoric of old in the months ahead, the key pressure point at present
appears to be finance. Finance Minister Peter Robinson fired a shot
across the bows of other Ministers on the very first day of
devolution, threatening he would make full use of his scrutiny powers
to ensure that Departments "meet their budgetary commitments within
the agreed timescales and deliver value for money".  It was this
ruling which later lead to his rebuke of Deputy First Minister
McGuinness, Education Minister Catriona Ruane and Social Development
Minister Margaret Ritchie when they supported the introduction in
principle of free personal care for the elderly.

Apart from policy priorities, however, many other issues, not least
the freeze of public administration reform and local government
upheaval, have enormous financial implications. Finance naturally goes
hand-in-glove with development of the Executive's Programme for
Government, which is expected to be finalised by December. But there
have been rumblings that some internal deadlines within the
comprehensive spending review are starting to slip. MLAs intend to
attempt to uncover exactly what state the financial round is in by
asking a series of questions, including Departmental estimates of
their underspends.

The difficulties are exacerbated by the apparent failure to get Gordon
Brown to provide a significant package - though Mr Paisley told the
Assembly on Monday he hoped the Prime Minister could still be
persuaded - or to align corporation tax in Northern Ireland with the
Republic. The strategy so far seems to have consisted of buying time
and hoping a consensus will emerge in the autumn.

On the Irish language act there have have been ominous murmerings,
including Barry McElduff, the Sinn Fein vice-chair of the Culture,
Arts and Leisure Committee who warned "we all have vetoes."  The Irish
language legislation remains, however, a promise made by the
Government during the St Andrews negotiations almost a year ago, and
may still be resolved by the passing of an Act at Westminster.
Overall, the development of a coherent Programme for Government
remains a considerable challenge.

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