A pre-election row has erupted over the ‘Six-County budget’ in the Stormont Executive, with the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP both vehemently opposing financial plans agreed by Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The budget was passed by the Belfast Assembly by 67 votes to 31 after amendments proposed by the Ulster Unionists and the nationalist SDLP were defeated after seven hours of debate on Wednesday.
The budget vote was carried with the support of DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance votes.
Controversial spending cuts on foot of a reduction in the British annual subvention will now be implemented across the North.
The two Ulster Unionist ministers in the Six Executive, Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy voted against the budget, while the SDLP minister Alex Attwood abstained. The move laid them open to charges of neglecting their duties under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and a possible move to expel them from office. With an election due on May 5, the move is considered highly unlikely.
The DUP and Sinn Fein accused their respective rivals of posturing over the inevitable cutbacks.
After a long and angry debate, the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson said: “No-one can doubt the enormous scale of the cuts imposed upon Northern Ireland by the Tory-led government at Westminster.
“All parties recognise that the [subvention cuts] have to be managed and we have tried insofar as is possible to protect public services and build for the future economic recovery in the Budget passed by the Assembly.
“Under the terms of the budget settlement, we have recognised the importance of health by ring-fencing health spending,” he continued, but again attacked one of his Executive colleagues.
He said that failure of Michael McGimpsey, the UUP Health Minister, “to look for savings in his Department” had resulted in him having to “send in a team to do he job”.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, meanwhile accused the SDLP of being “weak-kneed” at Westminster, and also blamed the Ulster Unionists for failing to tackle the government led by its former allies in the Conservative Party.
“I have not heard any demands from Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott for a meeting with David Cameron,” he said. “If you consider what has happened, I have not heard him challenge David Cameron.”
Mr McGuinness also said SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie had described Britain’s drastic cuts in funding for the North’s public services as being “well short of expectations”.
He added: “For Margaret Ritchie to make such a weak-kneed response in the House of Commons clearly shows the SDLP are non-entities at Westminster.”
Mr McGuinness criticised all three ‘dissident’ ministers, but said of the actions of [the SDLP’s] Alex Attwood in neither voting for or against the proposals: “In the final analysis, it turned out that Alex didn’t have the courage of the Ulster Unionist Party’s convictions.”
He added: “I think that some parties have lost focus. The backdrop to this was the British government cutting the block grant and walking away from their commitments.”
Mr McGuinness said pressure would continue to be put on the government to adhere to agreements made with the previous Labour administration not to impose the cuts, and he said the UUP and the SDLP should support that effort.
“I think that the dishonest politics of some do absolutely nothing to deal with the reality that the cuts that have been imposed on us have actually come from multi-millionaires in London who haven’t got the foggiest notion of what life is like for working class people here in the north.
“I think the lack of focus does them a disservice, because rather than fighting with one another, what we need to see is all the parties working together. And if we are going to fight with anybody, fight with this British government over the reneging by this government of an agreement.”