In a process marked by sharp exchanges between ministers, divisions which have been evident at Stormont over its four-year budget were laid bare for all too see, reports Ed Jacobs.
In a process marked by sharp exchanges between ministers, divisions which have been evident at Stormont over its four-year budget were laid bare for all too see, with MLAs yesterday voting to approve a package to address the £4 billion cut to its block grant from Westminster.
Since the initial budget proposals were published in December, finance minister Sammy Wilson has sought to portray himself as the responsible one, prepared to take the tough decisions needed based on a poor hand dealt by Westminster; in stark contrast, the UUP’s health minister, Michael McGimpsey, has previously made crystal clear his strong objections to the settlement for the health department, fearing the likely effect it would have on health care across Northern Ireland.
And so, as MLAs took part in a lengthy seven hour debate, it became clear early on that neither the SDLP or UUP would be backing the budget, including their ministers on the executive.
Outlining her party’s objections, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie explained:
“As it stands this DUP/Sinn Fein/Alliance Budget if passed in its current form would mean more than 9,000 public service job losses, a pay freeze for almost 7,400 civil servants earning less than the average industrial wage and the potential introduction of a hike in student fees.”
“This budget fails the people of Northern Ireland. It is a formula for thousands of job losses and it will heap a mountain of misery on vulnerable households.”
In an equally stinging attack, the UUP’s finance spokesman David McNarry said:
“They are not proposals for a budget in a real sense but proposals based entirely on statements of intent which are in themselves based on wing-and-prayer assumptions, assumptions which cannot be stood over, which are not proven to be deliverable and have been effectively cut to ribbons by a growing list of notable economists and other bodies such as Age NI, the Royal College of Nurses, the Construction Employers’ Federation, the CBI and NIPSA.
“So this is budgeting on the hoof. Ownership of the cuts belongs only to the DUP and Sinn Féin parties in this house.”
But if anyone had thought that MLAs would kiss and make up following the vote, they were proved wrong as all sides continued to go on the offence.
For the DUP, its leader and first minister Peter Robinson sought to highlight the UUP’s links with the Tories to accuse them of hypocrisy in voting against the cuts. He explained:
“This budget does not contain all we would like it to because the Tory cuts have been so vast and so deep.
“The hypocrisy of the UUP complaining about cuts they urged people to vote for will not be lost on the people. We are taking our government responsibilities seriously: other parties for their own selfish cynical reasons have chosen to run off to the sidelines, offering no alternative way forward.”
Margaret Ritchie, however expressed her sadness that the assembly had failed to properly use the opportunities devolution presented Northern Ireland to protect it from the worst effects of Westminster’s cuts. She continued:
“DUP/Sinn Féin have rail-roaded through a budget for the next four years which simply reflected what has been handed down from London. There has been no real attempt to prevent the £4 bn of Tory cuts.
“This will cause job losses and hardship for a lot of people and the SDLP believe we could have done more to stop it.”
As Stormont prepares for dissolution at the end of the month, May’s elections will be dominated by the continued divisions over the budget and the cuts imposed. But despite the seriousness of the issues involved, perhaps the mere fact that Northern Ireland’s elections will be dominated by the same talk of cuts being debated across the rest of the UK is a sign of the progress that has made towards a ‘normalisation’ of Northern Ireland’s politics.
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