Thursday, 11 December 2014

It's People Crunching, Not Number Crunching

Rarely can a trip across the Irish Sea to deal with a Stormont crisis have seemed as appealing to a British prime minister as this week’s must to David Cameron. His meetings with the warring parties on ‘the hill’ will offer a brief respite from the bloodletting back at Westminster where – quite apart from his battle with Labour – his coalition partners have now turned on him and begun rubbishing his Chancellor’s sums.

The critics would seem to have a point. George Osborne’s figures have been so far off the mark, they could have been driven by Mark Thatcher.

For a party which prides itself on its business acumen, it’s made a poor fist of affairs. As Ed Balls pointed out, the government will have borrowed over £200bn more during its lifetime than it planned in 2010. That is precisely the kind of behaviour the Conservatives derided their Labour predecessors for.

And now Mr Osborne is demanding movement on the cuts to Welfare. He calls it “reform”, but that is sophistry. The Tories are less concerned with number crunching than people crunching. And you don’t have to be a genius to know that the effects will be disastrous here.

It was a predecessor of Mr Cameron’s (and possibly one of his heroes), the late Baroness Thatcher, who famously said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley. Yet a research paper, presented to MPs in October, provided evidence to the contrary.

The paper examined unemployment throughout the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies. Remarkably, it showed that in terms of finding work, Northern Ireland boasted three of the five worst. Foyle was top of the list, of course; West Belfast was second; and North Belfast fifth (for good measure, West Tyrone weighed in at 8th). Finchley and Golders Green – the object of Baroness Thatcher’s comparison – was 359th on the list. The Prime Minister’s Witney constituency was 623rd.
Foyle was top of the heap, too, for youth unemployment – among 18-24 year olds – with the two Belfast constituencies also making the top six; and all three featured in the top six for long-term unemployment.

So when Mr Cameron arrives here this afternoon, from the opposite end of the economic spectrum, someone will have to explain to him that – despite what he may have been told – Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley. He won’t, of course, have any idea what life is really like here (I can’t imagine there was a ‘free meal queue’ at Eton). But it is the responsibility of our politicians – all of them – to put him in the picture; after all, they are paid – and ‘expensed’ – to represent us.

They might choose to remind him of his joint pledge with Nick Clegg, in their 2010 Programme for Government, to “support sustainable growth and enterprise, balanced across all regions and all industries”.

That plainly hasn’t happened. And as if that dismal record wasn’t bad enough, George Osborne now plans to heap even more misery upon us. This is unusually sadistic – even for a Tory.

The DUP’s “No more money” mantra seems to have changed in recent days. The party appears to have accepted the need for some kind of financial package, not merely to lubricate the wheels of government but to keep the vehicle on the road.

Nobody wants a car crash at Stormont – not the DUP; not Sinn Féin; not the Irish government and certainly not the British. Unlikely as it may seem, Stormont has been touted around the world as an inspiration to societies trying to emerge from conflict. David Cameron will not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister on whose watch it juddered to a halt.

As any student of Irish history will tell you, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” and Cameron’s arrival does, indeed, present precisely that: an opportunity. While we might not have everyone singing off the same hymn sheet, we do – unusually – have most of the main parties humming in some kind of unison.

The DUP can behave coyly, with a general election just around the corner and the Tories possibly needing their votes; Republicans can play hardball, reminding Mr Cameron of Britain’s responsibility for what happened here (that’s a part of Legacy that seems to have slipped from Westminster minds and spending plans). We have been left with appalling levels of ill health – both mental and physical – deprivation and poverty.

It would require a major move on the Prime Minister’s part to cut a special deal over the North. But he rose to the occasion – rhetorically, at least – over Bloody Sunday. And in that programme for government, he and Nick Clegg emphasised their preparedness to turn old thinking on its head.

Mr Cameron wrote in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph that he was determined to do everything he could to help “resolve the outstanding issues and secure agreement”. Let’s put him to the test.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The next few days should tell whether we get our just desserts.