N. Ireland Politics

Sinn Fein says budget cuts 'must be resisted'

First Minister Peter Robinson's call for Executive ministers to come up with savings proposals were "crazy tactics," a senior Sinn Fein figure has said.

The Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October is expected to mean a cut of up to £2bn in the NI budget.

The DUP leader said the prospect of 20-25% cuts, amounting to about £2bn, made difficult decisions inevitable.

Mitchel McLaughlin said cuts "proposed or imposed by the British government must be challenged and resisted".

Mr McLaughlin, who is a member of the assembly's finance committee, said the Executive "shouldn't be simply rolling over".

"We believe the executive ministers should all co-operate to protect services and the economic interests of this region," said Mr McLaughlin.

"We believe we should be working with the Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

In July, the Scottish government published an independent review setting out options that it may want to consider in the face of the challenging public spending environment.

The Scottish government said it commissioned the report to "inform" debate ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

'Incredible'

Mr McLaughlin added: "It's incredible that Peter Robinson is inviting ministers to anticipate the cuts before we even get the budget statement on 20 October."

Mr McLaughlin said ministers should be identifying efficiencies in their departments rather than anticipating cuts in public services.

"Let's wait until we see the bottom line then be united in fighting these cuts; not simply surrender before the statement is even made," he said.

Employment Minister, Sir Reg Empey criticised Sinn Fein's stance on the proposed Treasury spending cuts.

He said everyone should work together.

"I can't imagine that anything else is happening in those departments because they're not irresponsible," he said.

"They must know, they do know the rough ball park areas of reductions that the Executive is going to have to find.

"It would be irresponsible not to be working on options at this stage.

"If we leave it until the last minute it'll be a panic and I hope we can at least do something for the people of Northern Ireland by proving that Stormont can work," he added.

Mr Robinson warned on Tuesday that Northern Ireland faced a "prolonged recession".

"While the Executive is not responsible for the economic downturn or the spending cuts, it is our responsibility to do what we can to tackle the problems they create.

"In these difficult economic conditions, the Executive's main priority must be to keep people in work and put people back to work. If necessary, budgets should be skewed to maximise the effect of public expenditure in keeping the economy moving forward," he said.

BBC NI Politicial Editor Mark Devenport said that the tensions between the Executive parties over how to respond to the expected cuts have been rumbling for some time, with the Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, keen to put contingency plans in place.

"However Sinn Fein ministers are resisting moves which they believe amount to acquiescence to the British Treasury.

"Next year's May Assembly elections are undoubtedly a factor, but so is the ideological divide between unionists and nationalists.

"The SDLP Minister Alex Attwood has expressed scepticism about whether a budget plan will be agreed ahead of next year's election.

"The Stormont parties have presented a united front in the face of dissident republican violence and eventually solved their differences over devolving justice.

"But they have pulled in different directions over issues like education and culture. The question is whether they will remain divided or will eventually unite in their response to the Westminster spending review," our correspondent said.

Spending review

Meanwhile, the leading public sector union Nipsa said job losses need not be an inevitable consequence of the spending review.

Nipsa says those cuts would put 30,000 jobs at risk. Its alternatives, which include moves to tackle tax evasion, will be published on Wednesday

Nipsa general secretary Brian Campfield rejected the government's assertion that the public sector in Northern Ireland is too big.

"The public sector is the size that it is in order to provide the services that people require," he said.

"Northern Ireland still has a significant amount of social and economic deprivation and it is precisely because of that deprivation that those public services are required."