Just because something is unpopular does not mean it is wrong.
Try telling people that if they expect world-class infrastructure, a free world-class health service and a free world-class education system from age 4-22, they will have to pay rather more for it. Unpopular. Not wrong.
My argument that the health and education systems must be reformed is based on the practical reality that people are not volunteering to pay more tax (they are always happy to volunteer others to do so, of course). The Health Service and education system can be improved, markedly in the former case, within the current budget if a wide-ranging reform process is embarked upon and properly managed.
However, if people want to go further, and have all sorts of other goodies, up to and including further education and new roads, then they will have to pay for them. In the former case, they already do up to a point (although still much less than in England). In the latter, they do not.
For example, everyone knows that the Republic of Ireland’s main roads network now outclasses Northern Ireland’s, in a marked reversal from 20 years ago. This has been achieved by a simple method – tolling.
It is not a complex principle, and it is one also adopted by France, Italy, Spain and many others. If you want top-class infrastructure, the user pays. It is an easy principle, and it is matched by hard economic fact – because the road is in effect mutualised, money can easily be borrowed to build it. At the moment, the NI Executive has already hit its borrowing limit. Mutualise roads, however, and billions could be instantly available to complete every project (A5, A6, York Street, and many more) by 2025-30.
Roads are not the only type of infrastructure this applies to. Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure is in fact slightly superior to the Republic’s (in terms of leakage) but is markedly worse than elsewhere in the UK. It needs significant and real investment urgently. Again, mutualise it by having a clearly separate water charge (even, in fact, if you reduce rates to compensate so the average household does not even contribute any more) and you can borrow to fix the problem.
The fact remains people in Northern Ireland pay by far the lowest rates and taxes (combined) in the UK. They have no right to expect better services in return. And the next time you hear the term “lack of investment” or “lack of resources”, remember it is the people as much as government who are refusing to invest. You get what you pay for.