Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Fiscal Squeeze














For those of you who missed Sammy Wilson's spending plans announced yesterday in the Assembly, the detailed consultation document can be downloaded here.

Although the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is faced with a relatively small reduction in current expenditure, it seems that capital funding could fall by more than 25%, from £79.9 million to £59.9 million. Minutes of the meeting of the departmental board held on 29 November 2009 posted on the DCAL website contain the following sentence: "As requested DCAL has presented to DFP, with Ministerial agreement, a schedule of options amounting to 5% of departmental current budgets and 30% of capital budgets."

Since spending on culture is commonly seen as discretionary, and the DUP has evinced a good deal of scepticism towards the secular variety, this is hardly surprising. Of more interest is what the effect will be on existing spending plans and just what that schedule of options contained.

The Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure confirmed in a Written Answer on 26 June last year that he intended spending £2,738,000 on the Ulster-Scots Academy in 2010-11. The slated 2009-10 figure was even greater — some £4,295,000 — but we know that nothing like that was spent, since no academy has yet been set up. However, one can infer from the higher planned figure for the academy's first year that start-up costs under the rubric of capital expenditure were envisaged in addition to recurrent spending.

While the Minister's figures appeared to show that more would be spent on Ulster Scots than on Irish, in practice Irish would still have been ahead, but without anything like the budget necessary. Reducing language spending overall would of course fit in better with the prejudices of ordinary Unionists.

The DCAL website's page on the Ulster-Scots Academy appears not to have been updated comprehensively since late 2008.

It would be a brave party that went ahead with such controversial plans while cutting over £100 million from the Health budget.

In the unlikely event that the institutions remain standing, expect an announcement to be sneaked out from DCAL either that the difficulties surrounding an academy are still being dealt with, necessitating further delay, or that it has been put off until the fiscal situation has improved. The fact remains that, while Ulster Scots has an attraction for many Unionists if it can be used to reduce expenditure on Irish, for the majority an Ulster-Scots Academy may be a step too far, particularly during a spending squeeze.

It will be interesting to see how the Minister plays the two sides, especially those who might have imagined that the new academy would provide them with paid employment.

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