The Northern Ireland Executive currently spends around £11.6 billion. Deep cuts and/or offsetting income or savings of the order £4 billion will have to found over the next four years. With the province having benefited from nominal growth in public expenditure of some 7 per cent per annum over 10 years, cutting will not come easily. Austerity will hurt.
The Spending Review announced on the 20th October heralded the start of a four-year fiscal consolidation. Deep cuts will have to be made and savings will have to be found somewhere presaging a shrinking of the state. Yet sustainable growth and employment are set to become evermore pressing economic and social goals so that a rebalancing of the economy and active, purposeful government will become urgent necessities.
How then should the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive respond? Where should government's core priorities lie? How can we set about creating an economy -- a buoyant private sector, an innovative civil and wider public sector, and an enterprising third sector -- that is flexible and capable of rising to the inevitable challenges that lie ahead for a region so chronically dependent on public spending for its needs?
This one-day conference was about developing a shared understanding of what lies ahead and of how the harsher realities might be alleviated. With an invited list of guests drawn from the world of politics and all sectors of the Northern Ireland economy the conference brought together a wide range of experts and commentators, both local and from further afield. Its horizon was defined by the budgetary decisions that would follow the Spending Review and, beyond May's Assembly elections, the creation of a leaner state with more sharply focused priorities.