New Cabinet position will improve government’s focus on the increasing powers coming to Holyrood
Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she intends to appoint an economy secretary seems entirely appropriate at a time when Scotland – and the world at large – faces more than its fair share of financial challenges.
At the beginning of the year the World Bank warned of a “perfect storm” this year as a result of slowdowns in the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – a scenario with serious implications for a global economy.
Closer to home, figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed the UK’s industrial sector fell back into recession yesterday as it shrank for the second quarter in a row. Yesterday’s figures represented the third time the UK industry has been in recession in eight years. Contributing to that unhappy situation would have been the challenging circumstances faced by declining heavy industries, a pattern typified by the difficulties facing the steel sector.
When it comes to the North Sea, yesterday saw yet another illustration of the problems that have beset the offshore sector as a result of the plummeting oil price. Aberdeen oil giant Wood Group warned that underlying profit could fall by 20 per cent this year. This is against a troubling background of thousands of job losses in the north-east of Scotland and beyond.
The economy is also centre stage in the debate over EU membership. If the Remain campaign is to be believed, the economic consequences of leaving the EU would be dire. Even if that eventuality doesn’t come to pass, the challenges remain severe.
With all this in mind, it is encouraging that the First Minister used yesterday’s Bute House press conference to reveal plans to devote a member of her new Cabinet to the economy.
It would be also be welcome if this new post plays some part in keeping the Scottish Government focused on jobs rather than the distractions of playing constitutional politics.
The creation of a economy secretary suggests Ms Sturgeon is keen for this to happen, but only time will tell whether this will actually be the case.
Ms Sturgeon’s new Cabinet structure also makes sense in that the newly defined position of finance secretary will allow the minister in question to focus wholeheartedly on the new powers coming Holyrood’s way. This term the Scottish Parliament will have substantial new economic levers and it is important that these are operated to their full effect.
On another issue, the First Minister said she was in favour of extending First Minister’s Questions and appearing four times a year before committee conveners.
A common concern during the last parliament was that the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011 meant that Holyrood was not equipped to provide the necessary checks and balances of government. Given the concerns about the Scottish Parliament’s ability to hold ministers to account, it was heartening to hear her say she was willing to subject herself to more scrutiny.
Grim echoes of the Troubles
The recent funeral of New IRA man Michael Barr in Strabane, Co Tyrone, saw a solemn cortege led by men and women in paramilitary-style uniform including black berets, their faces obscured from view by sunglasss.
The striking scenes harked back to the horror of the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, when neighbour fought against neighbour and mainland Britain lived under constant fear of terrorist attack.
So much was done to try to end the Troubles and many hoped that peace had finally been achieved through tireless work on the Good Friday Agreement and countless other peace talks.
Unfortunately it seems that the terror has never gone away, as MI5 has now increased the level of threat posed to mainland Britain by Northern Ireland-related terrorism from moderate to substantial – the third of five categories.
The move was inspired by continuing threats from dissident republican groups such as the New IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, said Home Secretary Theresa May.
This news must be put in context as the threat to the UK from international terrorism is still classified as severe by MI5.
However, it should make Britain’s leaders pause for thought.
The horror of the Troubles cannot be allowed to return and it is clear that decisive action must be taken now to prevent this from happening again. Time must be taken to explore what concerns have not been addressed and what promises have not been fulfilled and criminal groups pursed with vigour. It is time that Northern Ireland was put back at the centre of the political agenda.