Westminster is showing tough love to the new Stormont Executive. Certainly, if you listen to the way NI Secretary, Julian Smith, has dealt with politicians during negotiations to get Stormont up and running again, there’s a real sense that they are no longer being handled with the kid gloves of the past.

It was in evidence again after the visit by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week. When Finance Minister Conor Murphy described the financial package offered as “woefully inadequate”, Smith hit back on Twitter, noting that MLAs have been off work for three years at a cost of £15 million in salaries. “Let’s get on with it”, he commented.

This is quite a contrast to how Northern Ireland has been treated in the past. During previous Assembly suspensions, Westminster treaded carefully; former NI Secretaries appreciated the delicate nature of the stalemate and managed discussions and negotiations accordingly. This time, however, the anger within the electorate has meant the British government can play hardball. Whether it likes it or not, the Assembly is going to have to make tough decisions, some of which will not be met with favour by the electorate. The failure of politicians to get a financial package signed off before agreeing to get back into government has certainly left them with egg on their faces. There’s no guarantee they would’ve been granted the amount requested, but to agree to a set of conditions and programme for government without confirmation around how much money the British government was prepared to commit was naive at best. Especially as there are few services that do not require attention and funding after three years without a functioning government.

Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, NI politicians have been able to simply say no to many revenue-raising proposals such as tuition fees, water charges and other rates increases already in place in England. This, of course, ensured they remained in favour with the electorate. The nature of power sharing in the Executive means that none of the parties is prepared to take a decision that leaves people with less money in their pockets. But it looks like those days are gone and the north may be entering into a new phase of government, one where politicians have little option but to make unpopular decisions.

First Minister Arlene Foster is right to say discussions need to take place around how Northern Ireland raises revenue in order to fund itself. Government does indeed cost money and while in times gone by NI politicians have gone to Westminster with a begging bowl that’s been quickly filled to avoid further chaos, this Westminster government is taking a very different attitude.

Increasing tuition fees, however, as has been suggested is not the answer. At present, students from Northern Ireland who study for a degree at one of the north’s institutions pay £4,275 a year. Those who study in England pay £9,250 and a review into higher education commissioned by former PM Theresa May has recommended this amount be reduced to £7,500. Northern Ireland is already lagging behind its neighbours without creating additional barriers to increase participation in higher education. Research published last year by the Department of the Economy showed how the low proportion of graduates in the workforce – only 35 per cent of people aged in their 30s have a degree – limits Northern Ireland’s attractiveness for foreign direct investment. Young people and those who want to upskill are a key feature of the success and future growth of a competitive economy. We know that countries that have invested in education, such as the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, have reaped the rewards in terms of economic growth. Furthermore, it’s widely accepted that low levels of educational attainment are a major contributor to social mobility and poverty.

It’s clear that this Conservative government is not going to give handouts without evidence that NI is willing to make hard decisions about its future. Indeed, discussions and debates are a healthy part of any democracy and NI politicians do need to be able to look at the needs of the public and prioritise funds accordingly. The difficulty for Stormont, though, and one that seems to have just dawned on Ministers, is that in the three years they spent disagreeing with each other, bit by bit, the fabric of Northern Ireland society was disintegrating, meaning many services are now at breaking point. There will not be enough money to fix everything that’s broken but higher tuition fees is certainly the wrong discussion to be having. To me, it’s a lazy approach – never mind a regressive one – to fixing the north’s fiscal problems.