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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 18:40 GMT
Northern Ireland 'made of sponge'
Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
Politics Show

This week, a magic trick. If you read the next 400 words you will come to believe that your future wellbeing is inextricably linked to the Barnett Formula. Don't believe me? Read on...

Harold Wilson famously called Northern Ireland's striking loyalists "spongers". Three decades later, Peter Hain implied the same in relation to Northern Ireland householders when he suggested they weren't paying their fair share for water.

Scratch the surface of most English MPs and you'll find they agree with the characterisation. In fact, these days you hardly need to scratch.

Harold Wilson
Mr Wilson called Northern Ireland's striking loyalists "spongers"

The bottom line is the English are sick of giving money to the Scottish and the Irish, and to a lesser extent the Welsh.

Under the government's public funding arrangements that's what they've been doing for decades and a growing number of MPs now want it to stop.

It happens under a system called The Barnett Formula, named after the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Joel Barnett, who devised it.

It's a bit complicated, but in essence it was designed to ensure the smooth functioning of public services across the UK by allocating slightly more per head to the regions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The problem is that in this era of devolution, English taxpayers are envious of Scotland's superior public services - no university fees; free personal care for the elderly; better healthcare in key areas - and they're thinking "we're paying for that".

The spend per person of public money across the UK based on the latest available figures (2003/4) looks like this:

England 5,940

Wales 6,901

Scotland 7,346

Northern Ireland 7,945

So, we get about 2,000 more per head than the English. There are different ways of analysing the figures, but on any measure we get the most and contribute the least.

But without that differential what would happen to Northern Ireland's public-sector dependent economy?

Well, try imagining massive civil service job losses; huge hospital waiting lists; new charges for dentistry and education; crashing property prices and retail recession and you're probably getting the picture about right.

So, should the English MPs win the argument for scrapping Barnett, Northern Ireland could become a very cold house for just about everyone living here. Interested now?

We'll have plenty more in Sunday's programme. See you then.


PS - At a book launch in Belfast last night, Lord Trimble revealed how talks with Sinn Fein during the "Mitchell Review" moved to the American Ambassador's residence in London.

Lord Trimble
The peer was a guest at Winfield House

Hitherto, he recalled, the talks had been bad tempered and unproductive. But the London venue proved very fruitful. "Winfield House", he assured his unionist delegation "is probably the only building in London that isn't bugged by MI5."

Did that explain the much improved tone of the talks? Apparently not. As the American Ambassador's residence it was most likely bugged by the CIA and according to David Trimble his republican opponents were simply afraid that a transcript of the daily discussions would be landing on Bill Clinton's desk each morning.

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