The View From the Chair- Tina McKenzie, May 2022

Regional News 4 May 2022

Pork barrel promises won’t cut it

Alongside the numerous party policies emerging thick and fast in the final days of the election campaign were big money promises.

The enticements on offer include cash payments to help households with the soaring cost of living, expansion of the Warm Homes Discount, extension of the emergency fuel payment scheme, and offers of weekly payments for children facing severe hardship.

Of course, parties want to show they’re on the side of voters and action is clearly needed to help people who are feeling significant pressure on their finances. For those on the lowest incomes immediate support will be essential to help them through the coming months; but such a plethora of promises will be nothing more than aspirational sound bites filling space in TV and radio newsroom libraries unless the parties can actually agree to form a government and deliver a stable administration.

Four weeks ago, there was some hope that our politics was maturing. FSB’s Business Hustings, staged in association with Women in Business and the Ulster University Business School, saw the economy leads of the five Executive parties finding common ground on issues of importance to business. There was recognition that, as the largest employers in the economy, the fate of SMEs really matters because, with the exception of under 18s, all employees are also voters, so Executive policy should take real account of the needs of the sector. In advance of the hustings, FSB had published its own ‘Manifesto’; a distillation of the key issues that business owners right across Northern Ireland have flagged up as being in need of action. A call for Better Government underpinned every priority. There was a sense of optimism that the parties were in tune with SMEs, that they had digested our Manifesto, and that they supported its calls to action.

They say a week is a long time in politics so it’s perhaps little surprise that in the four weeks since the hustings, the parties have reflected on how they plan to appeal to the electorate and, sadly, some appear to have abandoned that common ground on which they all stood so recently. The reality is that mandatory coalition means no party can be properly held to account for the ‘commitments’ they make in their manifestos; the best they can do is reach agreement to form an Executive to deliver a Programme for Government, in which some of those campaign promises might vaguely make their way.

Unless all of our successful MLAs raise their sights, we will be faced with a poor choice. Either we will see political agreement and an Executive formed in which the work plan is the lowest common denominator where many lofty campaign commitments get abandoned; or we see political stalemate in which no agreement is reached and all campaign commitments wither. The only certainty is that, throughout this exercise, business will continue to function, employing voters who expect better and who, when they go to the polls on Thursday, will have the future of their own employment in mind.

With so much at stake, there is a real risk that already plummeting levels of trust in the power sharing institutions could eventually collapse. Hearing business owners repeatedly tell us during the Hustings that they ‘cannot afford to be let down again’ by Stormont should be the incentive, if one were needed, to get our political leaders focused on working collectively to support a society of engaged and empowered people. 

Without reaching common ground the multiple offers of cash or services to entice voters in a form of modern-day pork barrel politics cannot be honoured. And speaking of pork, in order to have free access to pork – and all SPS products from GB producers and suppliers - we need to see resolution to the problems associated with the Northern Ireland Protocol; and that will best be achieved by having a functioning Executive. Most of our politicians agree that its current operation isn’t working well enough, but they will only deliver change by working together.

Business needs to know what to expect from the new mandate if it’s to create opportunities for investment and growth and help reverse the economic damage that Northern Ireland has suffered as a result of the varying degrees of lethargy and chaos displayed during the past five years.

Only time will tell if our political leaders can agree a Programme for Government, aligned with a properly consulted upon multi-annual budget, to deliver a stable economic framework with proper accountability. The coming days will reveal a lot about the direction of travel for politics here. Whilst few chances exist to deliver, ‘last chance saloon’ territory sounds unthinkable. Let’s hope that when the party’s over, it’s not just business that’s left to clear up the mess.