Northern Ireland

What's in store for politicians as the assembly returns?

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
Image caption Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have a private pact to stick together

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have a private pact to stick together regardless of street violence or attacks from dissident republicans.

That pact, revealed by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness a year ago, has been tested most recently during the July riots in east Belfast.

Since then, they have had a bit of a break from each other - and Stormont.

But this week the assembly returns for another term. And the two Executive leaders are facing an in-tray stacked high, and financial reserves that are frighteningly low.

"We need the wisdom of Solomon at the top here," said Queen's University Politics Professor, Rick Wilford.

"Now I don't know if Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness can be erstwhile political Solomons but that's the quality of leadership we need."

'Short, snappy, direct'

Dr Wilford warns that the next term will be about managing the pain of chronic budget shortages.

He suggests one of the pressing challenges will be delivering the Programme for Government, outlining the aims of this term.

"It needs to be short, snappy, direct, focused on the economy, cushioning the worst of the cuts which are to come. But they can't wait for very long. It has to be the first order of business," he said.

He said the Northern Ireland Executive has little power to raise revenue and its debt will multiply if the Conservative/Liberal government was to deepen the cuts in the next term.

Image caption The Northern Ireland Assembly will return to Stormont for another term

As well as finding consensus around the cuts, the executive will have to settle outstanding issues around the appointment of the justice minister as the current arrangements are temporary, pending final agreement.

Tom Elliott, the Ulster Unionist leader who chairs the assembly's office of first and deputy first minister committee, laments the lack of progress on the Programme for Government.

He said party leaders met before the summer recess and he is seeking an early meeting on the issue.


He suggests the two administration leaders are facing huge pressures over the economy, and other key issues such as health and education.

Mr Elliott isn't convinced the two lead parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, will be able to keep the promises made during the May assembly elections.

"I think it will be quite clear as time emerges - particularly over the next four years - that quite a lot of the promises given by the two major parties in the run up to this year's elections will not be honoured," he said.

He questioned how the executive would pay for the anticipated freeze on tuition fees, as it is not clear how the £40m a year funding gap is going to be filled.

Mr Elliott wants to see an end to deadlocks around post-primary education, the Education Skills Authority and is seeking progress on the development of the Maze, the shared future strategy, corporation tax and airport duty.

He also expressed grave concern about cuts to health services, citing changes to accident and emergency services, and the pressures on the school's capital budget.

"I think the capital funding in education is so limited you are going to see quite a lot of schools and boards of governors shouting from the rooftops," he said.

The SDLP's Dolores Kelly has echoed that call for the Programme of Government to be agreed and published without delay and wants to know where the economy strategy is.

She said her concern is that the in-tray for the lead ministers is not that much different from four years ago.

"There is a huge amount of work for OFMDFM to deliver on. There has been an improvement at least on the face of it in the relationship between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness but we actually haven't seen that turned into deliverables for people on the ground in terms of good decision making," she added.

SDLP leadership

A DUP spokesman responded to Mrs Kelly's remarks by suggesting the SDLP gets its own house in order after a poor election result.

He claimed SDLP MLAs were finding it difficult to engage amid uncertainty over the SDLP leadership.

It is understood the Programme for Government is at draft stage and a source within OFMDFM said Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were as anxious as everyone else to get agreement.

He pointed out this was challenging when five parties had to agree, but was hopeful there would be "no undue delay".

The source added that there were a number of issues that were close to being resolved such as council reform and the role of the Education Skills Authority.

The source also said that promises around issues such as tuition fees and no water charges were made based on clear financial assumptions.

"We are not running away from promises," he said.