Villiers should stand up for NI, as she has done for her own constituency
OPINION: Nick GARBUTT (News Letter)
30 October 2014

Delegates from cities all around the world that are either emerging from, or still engulfed in conflict were in Belfast this week for a conference entitled “Promoting reconciliation through resilience”.

How apt therefore that our current Secretary of State, so often silent when we have most needed her, chose the occasion to spell out her own unique recipe for curing the ills of societies emerging from conflict: the imposition of harsh austerity measures, cutting budgets and condemning many citizens who have borne the brunt of violence to unremitting poverty.

It’s an unorthodox solution to say the least – and you can imagine some of the international delegates shaking their heads in disbelief, or wondering if what they heard her say was somehow being lost in translation.

We’re certainly going to need plenty of resilience to withstand what she has in mind – and she was quick to point out to reporters outside that if our local politicians don’t toe the line she’s going to bring in civil servants (well at least some that have not been sacked) to do the job for them.

Most ominous was Theresa Villers’ warning about the amount of money Northern Ireland receives from the Exchequer.

She said: “Public spending per head is 27 per cent higher than in England; the highest in the UK.

“Moreover, Barnett consequentials over the last four years mean that the Northern Ireland Executive is now actually receiving more in block grant funding than was originally envisaged when they set their budget.”

She is reflecting what many in England think: that Northern Ireland gets more than its fair share, that that is coming to an end and it is time we learned to live within our means.

This would be fair enough if Northern Ireland were as British as her own constituency of Chipping Barnet or the neighbouring one of Finchley.

But it’s not: neither of those very fine parts of wealthy London are emerging from conflict. They are not politically unstable with a legacy of divided communities and mutual distrust, and the government at Westminster is not on the verge of collapse.

Furthermore, the Conservative Party, with its ideologically driven agenda of welfare “reform”, has no electoral mandate here, and by imposing solutions upon us which may be very well suited to the interests of wealthy Greater London, but are not tailored to our own circumstances, it demonstrates just how little the Government has learned from the near disaster in Scotland.

It is of course correct that we receive more per head than anywhere else in the UK. The two departments most out of kilter are education and justice, where the cost of policing is far higher than the rest of the UK. There are reasons for both, which Villers well knows.

Nobody is saying for a moment that savings cannot be made in government. What rankles is that the person who holds the purse strings, and therefore wields all the power, has sat back and done very little until recently about the paralysing standoff on flags, parading and the past.

That apparently is for our local politicians to resolve, a stance that conveniently ignores the role of the sovereign government.

But mess about with the budget and she jumps in with both feet, threatening to replace elected politicians with bureaucrats.

Many may say that this is inevitable. But in Villiers’ case it is not entirely consistent: she is very much a Nimby politician for whom Chipping Barnet is the centre of the universe. So although she supported cuts to the police force in England, she opposed the closure of her local police station, and although health reform is just fine, she was not for downgrading hospitals in her area.

This is par for the course for politicians – and, after all, if she is to get re-elected it will be what she has done for the good people for Chipping Barnet that really matters, not anything achieved, or not, here.

But would it not be refreshing if she showed at least a little empathy for our unique circumstances, and stood up for us a bit more, just as she did over policing and health in her own constituency?

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