As our newly-installed finance minister, Sammy the Streaker is supposed to be the man holding the north’s purse strings. However, in a stunning display of béalbochtachas, Sammy has been doing the rounds of the media telling us that there’s no purse and only one string. Not that that’s prevented him striking populist poses.
His latest move is to announce that bonuses won’t be paid in the senior civil service this year. This sweeping gesture affects a grand total of £220 people, and is projected to save the public funds a grand total of (insert Dr Evil pose) one million pounds. The publicity this has generated for Sammy is cheap at the price – he’s even got a welcome from the NIPSA leadership, who with rose-tinted specs only see Sammy accepting their arguments against the bonus culture at the top. In any case, the senior civil service can console themselves with a 3.5% pay rise, while the office grunts still haven’t had an opening offer. Those guys would probably be happy to forgo a £50 non-consolidated bonus in exchange for a few quid on the scales, but in recent years governments have found it too convenient to use non-con bonuses and spine point progressions as a substitute for revalorising the scales. It may be that, while ditching bonuses at the top makes for cheap headlines, it would be too costly to ditch them at the lower grades.
Nor is there any sign of Sammy making any move on the grunts’ equal pay claim. You will recall that the then finance minister, Peter Robinson, committed to pay this just before he buggered off to assume the premiership. His successor, Nigel Dodds, kept saying that he was committed in principle to pay up, while setting in motion various procrastinating consultations and making dark noises about how he couldn’t really afford to settle unless the Brits agreed to pony up. Sammy is continuing with the dark noises. Actually, the money to settle the claim is there. What the Executive won’t say is that, while they can afford to pay the claim, they can’t afford to keep paying the grunts at a higher rate in coming years, especially with the likely knock-on effect once you get above the AA/AO grades. Hence the DUP’s zeal for reducing headcount, which however they still haven’t addressed in a thought-out way.
One possible problem, and this is something that Peter Robinson will be well aware of, is that the civil service is the second-largest employer in the north. Civil servants all have votes, and tend to use them. Their families also have votes. And lots and lots of them live in East Belfast, which could be a fascinating three-way fight between Robin Newton, Reg Empey and Naomi Long at the next election, with the TUV as the joker in the pack. It’s a bit of a dead stymie, and even the Stormont Executive can’t procrastinate forever.
On the other hand, attitudes are not nearly so parsimonious when it comes to the north’s biggest employer, the peace industry. I couldn’t help noticing Roy Garland’s column in today’s Irish News [subs required], arguing that, Conflict Transformation Initiative notwithstanding, not nearly enough money is flowing into loyalist areas. Roy wants the doubloons to flow freely, so that civic-minded loyalists can regenerate their areas.
You know, I’m getting kind of tired of saying this, and Roy Garland is an intelligent man who shouldn’t need to be told. Working-class Protestant areas in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere are in dire need of regeneration. You only have to walk down the Newtownards Road, which used to be a thriving commercial thoroughfare but is now nearly derelict, to know that’s the case. The fact that the regeneration isn’t really taking off, despite money being ploughed into those areas, surely calls into question the architecture of regeneration. To put it bluntly, if Taughmonagh is a hellhole, are you going to make it any less so by giving lots of money to Jackie McDonald?
I would suggest not. But then, the peace industry is virtually beyond criticism. And that’s a situation that does nobody much good, except those on the payroll.