So it is ‘back to porridge’ for our MLAs!

The divvying out of Departments looked a bit like a political version of Russian Roulette.

Despite the rhetoric, there was very little evidence of ‘putting the people first’.

Health & Social Care and ‘Communities’ were studiously avoided by the big two.

In doing so, the heavy lifting of an anti-poverty strategy with eliminating child poverty at its heart, and the reorganisation and protection of our health and social care services from privatisation, were left for others to pick up.

Robin Swann bravely picked up the baton again, and I think most of us were grateful for that.

The first prize of an over-rated department and drain on public expenditure – the Dept. of the Economy – was claimed by Sinn Féin for Conor Murphy.

Given the extent of the challenges facing the entire community, some continuity of ministerial leadership might have helped save time in getting through the to-do lists, and it might have been a more noble first choice for Sinn Féin to have retained the very competent and experienced Mr. Murphy in Finance.

The task ahead for that Department is monumental.

Of course, the Department of Finance it is not a person – it is a lot of people, all working in the central Department from which all other departments are funded in delivering public services and infrastructure. Basically, it is Northern Ireland’s public purse.

If the Department of Finance was a person, they would be making an urgent appointment with their local advice centre about the amount of debt they owed to an unsympathetic creditor determined to get every penny of it back, and more!

They would be able to call on confidential support from experienced, independent and impartial experts.

They would be helped with drawing up an accurate and current ‘financial statement’ of their current income and would be appropriately supported in the emotional distress of seeing on paper, in black and white, that they don’t have enough money coming in to meet their essential outgoings, never mind pay back their loans.

The least bad options for survival would be discussed, including writing-off debts, and the consequences of that.

The options would all be set out, but the decision about what to do would still lie with the person themselves – their choice and their responsibility to decide.

It isn’t that easy where a lot of people with different political outlooks are involved in defining the problem and exploring the solutions.

Nonetheless, the one thing in Northern Ireland about which every elected politician, every Department in Stormont, every senior civil servant, and the rest of us, all agree on is that there isn’t enough money in the No’rn Ir’n public purse to meet its public expenditure.

The absence of dispute is simply enough explained. It is simple mathematics, involving adding up and subtracting, then realising the answer is a minus figure. Maths is hard to argue with.

What to do about the minus figure is where things get complex and problematic, and where the going gets tough in building any agreement.

The reason for that is because the answers involve making choices about where to save, where to spend, and where to generate money.

The choices made depend on your political philosophy, and the political choices you make in doing one or both of two things that have be done.

No matter what your politics are, you need to increase the money coming in, and/or decrease the money going out – preferably both for long-term survival.

I am guilty of being a Socialist ‘without mitigation or apology’, but you know that already.

Were I in the unfortunate shoes of the very brave Caoimhe Archibold, who stepped up to the ministerial post, my choices would reflect that.

I would begin with negotiating a ‘write-off’ of our existing debt to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury Reserve as a result of the three year ‘overspend’ of budget.

Without cancellation of the debt, the UK government has simply provided the NI Executive with money, a sizeable amount of which it intends to take back from them over a period of time, possibly with interest, to repay the Treasury Reserve.

In the scheme of things across the entire UK budget, it is not such a big thing for the UK purse, and writing it off would allow a ‘clean slate’ start for the new Executive.

The consequence might be a limit to further borrowing for a fixed period, but at least you are planning ahead, not playing catch-up while servicing debt.

Then, I would prioritise children and protect the most disadvantaged children within all departmental budgets.

The Children’s Law Centre in Belfast may yet succeed in ensuring this is a legal imperative on all departments, if their judicial review against the Northern Ireland Office and others is successful.

This is not just morally correct, but sound economic policy, though this news may come as a surprise to the Department of the Economy; Infrastructure and others.

Indeed, I would go further, and create a Minister for Children whose responsibility it would be to ensure a cross-departmental singular budget for children for the delivery of cross-departmental work.

This would include a cross-departmental budget for Early Years from pre-natal to five-year-olds.

Investing in this co-ordinated way in infant mental health; emotional, social and physical development and child-centred childcare provision, we would prevent many of the problems arising throughout childhood and adulthood from not doing it, and save significant expenditure in the long run in compensating for a failure to properly support, develop the potential of children and protect them from harm in the earliest years of life.

Each Department could set out their departmental perspective and priorities in how investing in children in cross–sectoral work supports their duty of care and departmental responsibility and the associated costs.

The Children’s Department and shared budget would be financed from deducting this self-identified budget from each department.

The legal duty to work in this way for children already exists; there are existing delivery partnerships in each Health Trust; the Public Health Agency is a regional commissioner, and the councils have a legal duty in relation to integrated community planning which might benefit from being tried out in the less power-competitive arena of children.

Sadly, Socialists in Stormont are like hen’s teeth, but it is not that revolutionary an idea; someone might run with it.