Since the financial crisis started in late 2007, public spending in Northern Ireland has risen (even in real terms), and taxes have fallen (even in absolute terms). That is a straightforward fact.
“Austerity” is a word which has come to be much abused, because the seeds of that financial crisis were that we had become greedy in the Western World (and particularly in the Anglosphere), buying things we had not earned with money we had not got – in other words, we were not living austerely enough. Arguably most prominent among the parties challenging this greed were the Greens. They suggested most obviously that we use less fuel (thus not only drive and fly less, but also trade less, for example going back to eating solely in-season fruit rather that flying it around the world), but also that we live off our own resources (one member in North Belfast even grew his own tea in his house on the Ballysillan Road) – in other words, that we should live more austerely.
For whatever reason, “austerity” has come instead to mean a reduction in the balance between public spending and taxes raised. Many countries, such as Ireland, both reduced public spending and increased taxes – a clear case of “austerity” on this new, financial definition. However, here is the thing: Northern Ireland did not.
We should note again, as above, that Northern Ireland on the contrary had the precise opposite of austerity. Public spending has risen, no matter how measured, while almost every form of tax has fallen (Northern Ireland household taxes such as rates have been frozen, thus reducing markedly in real terms; UK corporation tax has fallen eight points; and UK income tax bands see the average earner paying £600 less in income tax each year now than eight years ago).
As The Detail and others have pointed out, what frustrates MLAs hanging out the begging bowl is that the amount of money they have, under NI Executive control, has fallen in real terms (though not, in fact, in absolute). That is true. The welfare bill in Northern Ireland has risen markedly (as it has elsewhere in the UK), and the money has to come from somewhere – if it is not coming from rising taxes, it will have to come in part from borrowing and in part from other services. Even in terms of current resource spending on public services, it should be noted that County Councils in England have had it much worse than Stormont or Holyrood have.
This brings us to the real point. If welfare spending is rising, the money has to come from somewhere; if you want welfare spending to rise even further for “mitigation”, as supposedly agreed at Stormont House, that is even more money which will have to come from somewhere. There are two options – it can be taken from other public services, or it can be taken in raised taxes.
Quite frankly, MLAs need to stop moaning. Firstly, we don’t have “austerity” by any definition. Secondly, we have a generous settlement. Thirdly, most of all, if you want more money for public services, have the guts to raise it!