The latest from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Amid signs that the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein are continuing negotiations on the devolution of policing and justice powers, despite Peter Robinson’s temporary resignation as First Minister, described by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams as being at a “sensitive and serious stage”, Left Foot Forward rounds up key developments across the devolved institutions.
In a sign of almost business as usual, DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has published for consultation the Government’s spending plans for 2010/11 setting out savings of £367 million, including cuts in the Department of Health of £113.5 million.
In publishing the proposals, Mr Wilson said:
“The easy option here would have been to do nothing on this issue which would have reduced the level of intervention required at this time. However, this short-sighted approach would have shifted the burden to the 2010-11 financial year when the Executive would then have struggled to address emerging pressures.
“In the circumstances I was faced with, I am confident that the proposals I am publishing today represent the best way forward in the next financial year.”
However, the proposals attracted anger from fellow Ministers themselves, particularly on the severity of cuts to health. Reacting to the announcement, UUP Health Minister Michael McGimpsey attacked the proposals:
“This has not been fairly dealt with. I have written to Executive colleagues saying I have completely opposed this approach. We (the Executive) have found ourselves embarrassed to the tune of £400m.
“They are taking over £100m out of health, and I have told them it is outrageous that they would be doing so. As far as the people of Northern Ireland are concerned, health is the most important. It is about life saving and pain and distress.”
“I am absolutely disgusted.”
As far back as September it was disclosed that the finance Minister was looking to make savings of £370 million. Furthermore, in November, Wilson sparked controversy when he made clear that hospitals across Northern Ireland could and should be performing more efficiently, causing another spat with the Health Minister.
With the survival of the Stormont institutions now in a balance, a spat between two senior ministers is probably the last thing Northern Ireland needs.
Appearing before the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, First Minister Alex Salmond has criticised the UK Government of seeking to include the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi as part of a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.
Mr Salmond was giving evidence as part of the committee’s ongoing inquiry into co-operation and communication between Holyrood and Whitehall, following the controversial decision by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds, as a result of being terminally ill with Cancer.
In November 2008, the then Foreign Office Minister, Bill Rammell, signed a prisoner transfer agreement with his Libyan counterpart Abdulatti al-Obidi. The transfer agreement was negotiated during talks between then Prime Minister Tony Blair and Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in Tripoli.
Commenting on the agreement, however, Alex Salmond said:
“It was a mistake because it raised an expectation by the Libyan government that Mr Megrahi would be included in such a prisoner transfer. It was a mistake because it cut across the due process of Scots law, because one of the provisions of prisoner transfer is that legal proceedings would have to come to an end. It was a mistake because it was cut across what we believe to be prior agreements with the United States government and the relatives.”
Mr Salmond also alleged that Justice Secretary Jack Straw, and Lord Falconer – one of Mr Blair’s closest political allies – were not informed of what he describes as Mr Blair’s “deal in the desert” to include the Lockerbie bomber within a prisoner transfer agreement.
Mr MacAskill, meanwhile, maintained that he had made the right decision to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds. However, questioned by Shadow Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, about the hero’s welcome the Lockerbie bomber received on landing in Tripoli, MacAskill said:
“Clearly in terms of the scenes of welcome to Mr Al Megrahi that is a matter that we publicly stated was a matter of regret. We had been given assurances by the government of Libya that there would be no joyous celebration and clearly that was not adhered to.“
Speaking during his first Question Time, the new First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, confirmed that Assembly members will get the chance to debate and vote on proposals contained within Sir Emyr Jones Parry’s All Wales Convention report, with a view to holding a referendum in the Autumn, as promised in the One Wales agreement between the Plaid Cymru/Labour coalition government.
In order for the Assembly to send the issue to the Secretary of State to approve a referendum, a two thirds majority of Assembly members would be needed to support such a step. Such support is almost guaranteed, with pledges of support for an Autumn referendum from both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. However, given how close we now are to a General Election, it is likely that responsibility for approving such a vote would be left up to whoever is Welsh Secretary after the election.
Speaking before his statement, Carwyn Jones said:
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“We are looking at a number of options at the moment on how the process might be moved forward.
“I think it’s right to say that all parties want to concentrate on the general election when it comes in the spring, whenever the date is, but, of course, in the meantime, we will have to show, after having a vote in the Assembly, that we’ve moved things forward in terms of devolution.”