AS the Westminster election campaign gets into full swing, it is the budget of the devolved Executive which has become the first field on which the parties are doing battle.

The monies allocated to the big departments of Health and Education by the Finance Minister, Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald, were always going to prove fertile ground for those parties who stand to benefit most electorally from another round of Stormont infighting and dysfunction. Throw in the devilishly complicating factor of the differing attitudes of two big-name ministers to the twin demands of Stormont and Westminster and we have a complex electoral crossover that’s ripe for exploitation.

Health Minister Robin Swann announced some time ago that he would be stepping down from the helm of the Executive’s most challenging and most important department to concentrate on his run for the Westminster seat of South Antrim, which his party, the UUP, has identified as a key target in its effort to rebuild its electoral credibility. And that has come to pass with his colleague, Mike Nesbitt, stepping into his shoes.

Mr Swann received a torrent of criticism for his decision, ironically because he’s perhaps the most popular and effective Minister in the Executive and his decision was seen as a blow to the stability of the institutions when stability was never more needed.

Justice Minister Naomi Long, meanwhile, announced at the weekend that she would, as expected, be taking on DUP interim leader Gavin Robinson in a Westminster clash of the titans in East Belfast. But the Alliance leader is staying in-post at Justice because she feels she’ll be able to focus on her department while engaged in the biggest, most demanding and most important political battle of her career. 

This is quite plainly nonsense on stilts. If Mrs Long is to take the seat, it will require an effort of gargantuan proportions on her part – and that effort cannot be undertaken by her team because, quite simply, it is Mrs Long’s huge personal popularity in East Belfast that has brought the party to within striking distance of the DUP in its former fortress, and it is only through a gruelling ground campaign that involves countless personal appearances that she’s going to be able to pull off the win.

If she fails because she was unable to devote that time and energy to the campaign trail because of the extraordinarily complex demands of her job, then she will have damaged her party and handed the DUP a huge fillip at a time when things have seldom looked gloomier for the largest unionist party. If she wins, then packs in the Health gig and flies off to Westminster, she will have sent an unmistakable message to the electorate about where her priorities – and those of her party – lie.

There can be no winners in this spat about the new budget. The truth is that no matter how the budget looked it would still have caused division and no winners would have emerged – only losers.