While we are all distracted by the big numbers and the consequences it will undoubtedly have for our individual and collective standard of living in the next few years one of our Executive Ministers seems to be playing a largely unnoticed but ultimately dangerous game. Alex Attwood seems to be dallying with the idea of breaching parity.
In the Assembly earlier this week he stated:
"My officials are currently conducting an equality impact assessment on to the principle of parity in Northern Ireland. I am not just looking at the individual changes to child benefit or housing benefit, or any of the other proposals that are coming down the tracks, but am beginning to scope the much more fundamental issue of the principle of parity, and whether the principle of parity, as it currently operates, does or does not have equality implications. That is some blue sky thinking and the broader context in which we should consider those matters."
This morning he was talking about how the Osborne announcements of £7bn in welfare cuts would involve £200m taken from benefit claimants here. However, he went on to imply that the Executive budget process was a means to preventing this. This fundamentally misrepresents our budget process. Government expenditure falls under two categories the block grant called Departmental Expenditure Limits (DEL) and benefits which are Annual Managed Exepnditure (AME).
The Executive has made one foray in the region of benefits with its one off winter fuel payment. However, the one-off and small nature of it meant it was permitted and not seen as destructive to the principle of parity. What Attwood seems to be proposing is well beyond. This would involve a rejection of the principle of parity. This is the financial equivalent of punching a hornets nest.
It may be mighty tempting to a nationalist minister to destroy Craig's negotiating success with the Treasury in the 1930's. It might be mighty tempting to a SDLP minister to pick such a fight to up their profile with a nationalist and leftward posturing and increase their relevance to working class republican areas. It might be a good issue to base an Executive resignation on.
However, if this path is the one Attwood and the SDLP plan to follow it would only make our budgetary problems worse.