N. Ireland Politics

David Cameron has pledged to try to make Stormont work better

Image caption Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson recently described the institutions as "not fit for purpose"

Amid the many promises of opportunity for the UK's other nations, there was a rather more basic pledge for Northern Ireland by David Cameron in his speech on Friday.

He promised to try to make Stormont work better.

But that, itself, is a task that will need a lot of work.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson recently described the institutions as "not fit for purpose".

Governance works slightly different in this part of the UK. Coalitions are not formed, they are enforced.

Currently that means the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance Party all have to work together.

'More powers'

And the ideological differences of the two biggest parties have helped to create a rather unhappy multi-person marriage.

While politicians in Scotland and Wales talk excitedly about arguing for more powers, there are some who argue that Stormont cannot cope with the ones it already has.

The specific difficulty at the moment concerns welfare reform - which was devolved in Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland and Wales.

The parties cannot agree on legislating for welfare changes; leading to financial penalties from Westminster and a huge rift between the DUP and Sinn Féin.


With the impact about to be felt by departmental budgets, that is threatening to cause another crisis at Stormont.

In the past when things have stopped working at the assembly, the back-up plan was to have a period of direct rule - ie the Westminster government took over while they got over the bump caused by political problems.

But how would that work in a future UK where there are more distinct and separate institutions for each nation?

The Stormont parties have talked up the chance of being given the power to set corporation tax in the aftermath of the referendum, to help Northern Ireland compete for business with the Republic of Ireland.

However, a lower tax rate could come at a potential cost to money for public spending. And that is another real issue.


Under the Barnett Formula - the method used to work out public spending across the UK - Northern Ireland gets more money per head than any of the other four nations.

That is something unionists, nationalists and republicans will all want to protect.

Things are undoubtedly changing, but that could be unsettling at Stormont.

More on this story