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Northern Ireland, the austerity punchbag

Eight-year waiting lists on the NHS. Seven-hour waits for ambulances. Slashes to the police force and jaw-dropping cuts to the education system. With Belfast government paralysed by Brexit fallout, the country is in deepening crisis - but Westminster just wants its money back.

November 18 2023, 13.10pm

Zoë Elliott’s 12-year-old son Jay has Down Syndrome. His school is having its funding cut. A therapist it hired has been reduced to working just one day a week as a result. 

Zoë would have appealed the funding cut – but there are no political leaders to appeal to.

“It’s just more and more cuts and there’s nothing to give,” she says. “We don’t have anything left to give away. All of the money is depleted already. All of the staff are tired, they’re overworked, they’re underpaid.”

Zoë lives in the village of Waringstown in County Down, Northern Ireland: the country its kingdom forgot. The cuts faced by her son’s school, which is focused on children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND), are just a microcosm of a brutal round of fresh austerity imposed by Westminster and delivered by unelected civil servants while Northern Ireland’s leaders take an extended break from leading. 

The cuts have been greeted by near silence from politicians and journalists in both London and Dublin, for whom Northern Ireland only exists when a bomb goes off.


Zoë is chair of the parent teacher association at Jay’s school. The school has been funding a music therapist through the Extended Schools scheme, which gives extra money to schools in disadvantaged communities for breakfast and after-school clubs, extra-curricular activities, literacy programmes, language clubs and other initiatives. 

“The cuts over recent months come off the back of over a decade of cumulative horrific cuts to the wider education budget, and to school budgets in Northern Ireland directly.”

“Our music therapist is phenomenal,” she says. “He actually lives round the corner, he’s a local guy, but he is superb with the children. The children just adore him. He’s actually now working alongside our therapists, our speech and language therapist and our occupational therapist, to try to use his skills for their therapies, because not all our children are verbal.”

But thanks to the cuts currently sweeping through Northern Ireland’s public services, funding for the Extended Schools programme has been reduced, meaning the £16,000 that paid for the music therapist at Jay’s school has disappeared. As a result, the therapist has been cut back to just one day a week this school year.

Across Northern Ireland’s education department, there have been cuts to the block grant - around half of which goes on SEND - cuts to the aggregate schools budget, an end to the Holiday Hunger free school meal payments during holiday periods, a pause on 28 new schools and work to clear a huge maintenance backlog, a near 90% cut in the recommended funding for the Fair Start programme to tackle educational underachievement, and reductions in funding for Extended Schools and SEND coordinators. The list is exhausting but non-exhaustive: plenty of other cuts have been enacted, and yet there’s still a budget gap requiring even more cuts to be made.


Amid soaring inflation, the devolved Northern Irish government overspent its budget in the 2022/23 financial year, meaning it was effectively borrowing from the UK. And the UK government wants the money back. Earlier this year, Westminster’s cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, ordered the Northern Irish government to repay £297m this financial year – since extended to two years – by cutting its own spending.

What caused this overspend is a matter of debate. Rising inflation and staff pay rises contributed, but these were factors across the UK. What’s different about Northern Ireland is that it has no functioning government – its ruling Executive collapsed in February 2022 after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out in protest at the Brexit-related Northern Ireland protocol. Without the DUP – the largest unionist party in the Assembly, the national parliament – there can be no Executive under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements.

The House of Commons select committee on Northern Ireland has held an inquiry into the overspend and subsequent cuts. Sir Robert Chote, chair of the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, told the inquiry in early July that while Northern Ireland did have caretaker ministers in place last year, “they knew they were not going to be holding the parcel at the end of the year, which affects the way in which people end up taking decisions.”

But although the Northern Irish government overspent its budget, that doesn’t mean it was profligate. “When we look at how the £297 million was spent, it was not spent on sweets,” economist Dr Lisa Wilson told the inquiry. “It was spent on basic public services.”


Sir Robert warned the committee there was a danger of a further overspend this year. After all, the overall impact of repayment is bigger than the £297m Westminster wants back – rising costs mean the Northern Irish government must work with less money at a time when it needs more. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in education. Northern Ireland’s Department of Education (DENI) must cut its spending by £66.4m on its 2022/23 budget – but rising costs and increasing need, particularly in the SEND system, mean the actual savings required in 2023/24 amount to £382m, equal to nearly 15% of last year’s education budget. 

“The cuts over recent months come off the back of over a decade of cumulative horrific cuts to the wider education budget, and to school budgets in Northern Ireland directly,” says Graham Gault of the National Association of Head Teachers in Northern Ireland.

“Our schools here, in a broken, divided, post-conflict society, are in many ways not just a safe haven for our children who grew up in and exist within the influences in divided communities, but also to an extent a panacea to some of the ills of our society,” he adds, referring to the violent organised crime that masquerades as politicised sectarianism. “[Schools] can often be the only place where some of our children from some of our most challenged communities can have influences that are positive in their lives, outside of positive influence direct within their family.”

In the absence of a governing Executive, it has fallen to civil servants to decide what gets cut. This has left them in an awkward position, taking decisions that could be politically sensitive without the elected mandate to do so. Cuts at DENI have so far been decided by the department’s permanent secretary Dr Mark Browne, who at the start of June U-turned on planned cuts to youth services and early years programmes on the basis that such high-impact decisions can only be taken by ministers. 

Because some services must be delivered by law, the cuts in DENI have so far fallen on non-statutory preventative and support services, which could store up problems – and higher public spending pressures – for the future. 

“I don’t think these programmes, for example the Holiday Hunger scheme, will ever be replaced,” says Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, an academic at Ulster University and prominent campaigner against the cuts. “A lot of commentators are saying that senior civil servants are making it much easier for politicians at the minute, because they are taking accountability for these cuts, and not politicians who are elected. Therefore when they come back they really have escaped so much of the backlash or the criticism for implementing these austerity cuts.”

Eight-year NHS waiting lists

“I would not be overdramatising it if I said that the state of our health service in Northern Ireland is beyond crisis,” Dolores McCormick of the Royal College of Nursing told the Northern Ireland select committee in May. “I would absolutely say we have fallen off the cliff edge.”

She and her fellow witnesses, Professor Mark Taylor of the Royal College of Surgeons and Dr Tom Black of the British Medical Association (BMA), detailed the horrific state of Health and Social Care (HSC), Northern Ireland’s NHS and social care provider.

Eight-year waiting lists, compared to the 18-month lists causing justified panic in England. Up to seven-hour waits for an urgent ambulance. A quarter of the population of Northern Ireland either waiting for surgery or to see a consultant. Dozens of GP practices closing or in crisis. 

“We are going to see GP collapses and hospital service collapses, and they are going to happen every month, if not every week.”

“Our orthopaedic surgeons are seeing people whom they know they will never be able to give the treatment that they are designed to give them,” said Professor Taylor. “An 80-year-old person waiting five to seven years for a hip will not get that hip replacement.”

Northern Ireland’s Department of Health faced a £732m funding gap this year. Measures such as reduced spending on family health services, cutting funding for waiting list initiatives and scrapping the free flu vaccine for 50-64-year-olds have brought this gap below £370m – but the Department is heading for another overspend in 2023/24. 

As a result, the Department says it can’t afford to make a pay offer to staff without making “unprecedented” cuts, which “would not be deliverable under the current decision making powers and which would have severe and lasting implications for health and social care services”. Matching the pay offer made to NHS staff in England would cost £375m.

This leaves healthcare staff in Northern Ireland facing a potential pay freeze in cash terms, or at best far bigger real-terms pay cuts than in the rest of the UK. This will exacerbate staffing issues in HSC, which has a vacancy rate of 8.5%. Around a quarter of its 7,200 vacancies comprise registered nursing and midwifery roles.

“Our members in health and social care … are hugely frustrated and feel that they are being used to resolve political issues that aren't of their making,” Anne Speed, head of bargaining and representation at trade union Unison Northern Ireland, tells The Lead. “The cost of living crisis is continuing to have a major impact on them and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland [Heaton-Harris] should not hold back any funding that would flow through the Barnett formula from the pay award in England.”

Speed is referring to the so-called ‘Barnett consequentials’. When Westminster increases public spending in England, it sends a corresponding spending rise to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – known as Barnett consequentials after the Barnett formula, which governs how government money is distributed among the four countries of the UK. 

But the UK government has decreed that any Barnett consequentials this year won’t go to the Northern Irish government, and will instead be written off against the overspend to reduce how much Northern Ireland ‘owes’ the UK. This means money for pay rises across the public sector are being held back from Northern Ireland until at least 2024/25. 

“We have a very difficult year ahead of us,” the BMA’s Dr Black told the select committee. “We are going to see GP collapses and hospital service collapses, and they are going to happen every month, if not every week.”

Charities are also bearing the brunt – the devolved Department of Health has slashed its core grants to 62 organisations including Women’s Aid, at a time when Northern Ireland’s voluntary sector is being buffeted by cumulative cuts from multiple ministries.

“As need is increasing, funding is decreasing,” Celine McStravick, head of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, told MPs at a separate hearing. “I know organisations that have had to reduce home visits to families who really need it. They have had to reduce the opening hours of their centres, particularly for the elderly. They would normally be open three nights but can only open one night.”

David Babington, chief executive of Action Mental Health, told the committee about one of the charity’s clients – a 20-year-old woman with autism and mental health issues. 

“She was in tears because her staff sadly had to be made redundant because of various cuts that we had received. It was not just her; her mum was in tears as well. This young lady had spent most of Covid in a cupboard in her kitchen, fearful of the outside world, and had not been able to get out. She is really starting to flourish and now she is going backwards,” he said.

“I am afraid that that young lady’s issues are going to get worse. She is probably going to go back into a cupboard or similar, and not progress and move out into wider society. All that potential is lost. In terms of mental health, I am afraid that it compounds the generation of underfunding that we have had already. I do not see any light at the end of the tunnel in terms of rectifying that.”


The cuts reach into every area of public services – universities, colleges, libraries, higher public transport fares, reduced social housebuilding, financial support for struggling tenants. Discretionary Support – a scheme that provides emergency loans and grants to people on low incomes – is seeing its funding halved at a time of heightened demand. The number of police officers was meant to rise to 7,500; instead they are being cut from 7,000 to 6,300 over two years, and could fall below 6,000 by 2025. 

George Osborne’s austerity axe did enough damage when it fell after years of public spending rises under Labour. The Heaton-Harris Hammer, by contrast, is hitting public services that have already been squeezed for years. Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities says its funding for existing areas of work has been cut by 30% since 2011.

Many in Northern Ireland suspect the UK government is imposing the cuts as a gambit to drive the DUP to end its boycott of the Executive and reopen Northern Ireland’s shuttered political institutions. The theory goes that the UK government might ease the financial pain in exchange for the return of power-sharing. 

“But the worry about that is that so many of these cuts have already been executed,” says Dr Fitzpatrick, “and once the cuts are made it’s very, very hard to undo what has been done.”

“Is it the responsibility of a SEND child in a school – is it their responsibility to get the DUP to go back to work?,” Colm Eastwood, leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) asked the Commons this summer. “Is it the responsibility of an elderly patient waiting for a hip replacement … is it their responsibility to get the Executive back up and running in Northern Ireland? No it isn’t.” 

A spokesperson for the UK government’s Northern Ireland Office said: "The UK government has for many years recognised the unique challenges Northern Ireland faces. We have provided around £7bn in additional funding to Northern Ireland since 2014 on top of the Barnett-based block grant.

"We recognise that the Northern Ireland departments, in the absence of NI ministers, will face difficult decisions to live within their budgets, but these decisions are unavoidable. And we continue to place our thanks to NI civil servants for keeping public services running until such times as an Executive is in place.”

These decisions are described as “unavoidable”, but they are only unavoidable because of the actions of the very people uttering them - Heaton-Harris and the Westminster government that is treating one of the poorest and most politically fragile parts of the UK with the severity of a Dickensian landlord. 

But this has always been the mentality of austerity: the notion that public spending is a sign of indulgence rather than need, and taking it away is character-building, rather than a decision to ignore the need. But the need doesn’t go away. Council overspends are a reflection of need. Departmental deficits are a reflection of need. And what Northern Ireland needs most right now is for its own politicians to do their job—and for Westminster politicians to give them the money to do it.

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