An attempt to secure tax-varying powers for the Belfast Assembly was defeated on Monday. Unionists blocked the Sinn Féin motion after DUP Finance Minister Peter Robinson expressed reservations.
Sinn Féin said that without greater financial freedom the assembly was being “set up to fail”.
Opening the debate on the issue, Sinn Féin West Belfast Assembly member Jennifer McCann said it was probably the most important debate that the Assembly would have “not just today but any day”.
“These fiscal freedoms can unlock our potential to set our own funding priorities. They would also be an essential component developing a radical plan of action to tackle deprivation and ensure long-term economic development,” she said.
Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, said there should be a level playing field with the 26 Counties over matters such as corporation tax.
But Mr Robinson said: “In my view the attraction of tax-varying powers doesn’t stand up to detailed scrutiny. Members should not underestimate the danger of opening up such matters with the [British] treasury.”
PRAISE FOR SF
Later in the plenary debate, the first of the new Assembly session, the DUP First Minister, Ian Paisley, praised Sinn Féin after it unreservedly condemned attacks on Orange halls.
Sinn Féin withdrew an amendment which also criticised attacks against Catholic churches. There has been a rising tide of incidents involving symbolic buildings from both communities in the six years up to 2005.
Mr Paisley said: “I think it is a good thing that this meeting today is dwelling on Orange halls.
“We will have another opportunity I am sure again to dwell on the other.
“We are just as much against the attack on the Roman Catholic place of worship as we are on the attack on Orange halls but I think that today the decision from across the bench will be an encouragement to people who in the future look that we will come to an end of all this and to better things for our people.”
Gerry Adams said: “Withdrawal of the amendment was because we listened very intensely to what was being said from the benches opposite.
“These attacks are wrong, they should stop, the perpetrators should be made available to the PSNI and subject to due process.”
Before the summer recess, the Assembly enjoyed what was described as a “honeymoon period” following the landmark power-sharing agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP, with little work being done.
But as the initial enthusiasm that greeted the new executive gave way to expectations that it would make a practical difference, the North’s political parties have started emphasising real issues.
The principal matter at issue is the future of policing and justice powers in the North, which still remain under direct British rule under the control of British Secretarty Shaun Wooward.
Other topics which will be debated are the controversial 11-plus exam, which Sinn Féin has pledged to abolish, and which the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is adamant should remain.
The Irish Language Act, which would accord Irish equal status with English, is also set to be opposed by the DUP.
Less fundamental, but equally contentious, is the ongoing row over where to site a new sports stadium -- in Belfast or on the site of the former H Blocks prison.
The parties will also be concerned with the possibility that the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will call a snap general election before the end of the year. In this regard, it has emerged that the DUP is considering an election pact with the rival Ulster Unionist Party.
Peter Robinson, confirmed he had invited Reg Empey’s UUP to take part in wide ranging discussions aimed at maximising the unionist vote.
“The Assembly election results demonstrated that greater co-operation between unionist candidates could have increased the total number of unionists returned to the Assembly,” he said.