Economic commentator Will Hutton, quoted by the BBC, 'has warned that the NI public sector will face cuts irrespective of who wins the election':
' … in the past 15 years taxes raised in a "bubble economy" in the south east of England had been redistributed to other parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, through a growth in public sector jobs.'
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) warned that the UK faces the deepest spending cuts since the late 1970s if the three main parties are to meet their budget commitments. The years between 2011 and 2015 must see the largest cuts since 1976-80, according to the IFS.
What will it mean for Northern Ireland, and particularly for the 'constitutional question'?
Firstly, of course, it will remove the safety net that Northern Ireland has enjoyed since the start of the global economic crisis. Many commentators had remarked that the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland would cushion it from the worst of the effects – and so it appeared to be. Unemployment in Northern Ireland did not rise as fast or as far as in the south. But now, when the rest of the world appears to be coming out of crisis, Northern Ireland may be heading into one of its own.
Although unemployment rates in Northern Ireland are relatively low, recently they have started to increase rapidly. There are only two Northern Irish constituencies in the 'top 25' in the UK in terms of their unemployment rate (West Belfast and Foyle); but in the 'top 25' of unemployment increases during the period February 2009 to February 2010 there are fully eleven Northern Irish constituencies – with East Belfast at number 2, with an increase in unemployment of 51.6% in one year. So unemployment is already racing upwards, and that will increase. At the same time, benefits will probably be frozen or restricted.
This will not provide much support for the unionist mantra that 'Northern Ireland is better off in the UK'. If the cuts come fast and deep (i.e. if the Tories win in Britain) then the effects will be clear in time for next year's Assembly (and local?) elections. Any hopes the UUP may have had of increasing their Assembly presence would probably be dashed, and their hopes of attracting Catholic votes would remain still-born.
In a situation of increasing unemployment and with London appearing to cut back its subsidy to Northern Ireland, the perception of marginality will increase – unionists will increasingly feel let down, and nationalists vindicated. If the south is coming out of recession at the same time (and it is expected to do so in 2011) then nationalists in the north will be reinforced in their belief that the north would be better off in a re-united Ireland – and unionists would have few counter-arguments.
The reaction to the inevitable cuts in Northern Ireland will combine with a period of increasing interest in Northern Ireland's creation (the decade of centenaries), and a narrowing of the gap between unionism and nationalism in the polls – and between Protestants and Catholics in the census.
All of these factors will keep alive – and probably reinvigorate – the constitutional question, just at the time when unionism is hoping to bury it.