Anger As North's Budget Voted Through

The Executive budget has been passed by the Assembly at Stormont - but only by 67 votes to 31 after amendments proposed by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were defeated and seven hours of debate on Wednesday.

Spending cuts on foot of enforced UK-wide budget trimming will now be made while more than £1bn in revenue-raising ideas are set to be implemented.

The budget vote was carried with the support of DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance votes and a single independent - the North Down unionist Alan McFarland.

Ulster Unionist (UUP) ministers, Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy voted against the budget, while the SDLP minister Alex Attwood abstained.

After a long and angry debate, the 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 Tory/UUP 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 took the opportunity to attack one of his Executive colleagues.

He said that the UUP Health Minister's alleged failure "to look for savings in his Department" had resulted in him having to "send in a team to do he job".

"Indeed, we have enshrined a commitment that all government departments will be top-sliced if the case is proven that extra resources are required," the DUP Leader continued.

The First Minister continued: "In the budget we will be extending small business rates relief to help our town centres and village shops to keep their heads above water.

"We have resisted the calls of some parties to impose water charging, thereby protecting hard-pressed families struggling to get by in these difficult times. We have also moved to ensure that public transport for our older citizens is secured.

"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," said the angry First Minister.

Last night, the Sinn Fein Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) Minister, Michelle Gildernew also welcomed the Executive's agreement on the final budget, which she said makes substantial commitments to those who live and work in rural areas.

"DARD faces a number of significant strategic issues over the next four years including improving access to rural services, tackling the economic challenges facing the farming and fisheries industries and improving the environment.

"As I said back in January, I do not have the resources to do everything I want to do, and we will have to take action in a number of areas to balance the books over the next four years, including making some £40m of cash savings to help fund pressures."

Highlighting a story covered yesterday on 4ni.co.uk, she continued: "I also met with the YFCU in February and listened to their views.

"After discussing with them the benefit that could be provided through a programme of work focused on delivering benefits to the whole rural community, I announced my decision to renew a grant to them, subject to their submission of a suitable business proposal."

Budget Failure

In counterpoint, the SDLP Leader and South Down MP Margaret Ritchie has said the current budget fails the people of Northern Ireland.

Ms Ritchie said the SDLP attempts to improve the financial proposals had been opposed by the DUP and Sinn Fein at every turn.

"The 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. It punishes low-paid workers, students, teachers and schoolchildren, the construction industry and those who depend on our health service.

"The DUP/Sinn Fein authors of this Budget have taken a completely defeatist approach when it comes to cuts," she fumed.

Ulster Unionist Leader Tom Elliott has reiterated his opposition to the budget.

"The Ulster Unionist Party had no choice but to reject this budget, and the Assembly team, including our two Ministers were unanimous in their opposition and voted against," he said knowing that, under Stormont rules, ministers who voted against the budget could be in breach of their ministerial code.

However, it is understood no disciplinary action is to be taken against either the Ulster Unionists or the SDLP by members from the larger parties, the DUP or Sinn Fein.

This would be fairly academic as the Assembly is to be dissolved on March 25th in time for elections in May.

In conclusion, the DUP Minister for Finance Sammy Wilson said he had taken every chance available to ease the blow of spending cuts, and he accused the SDLP and Ulster Unionists of having no alternative, costed proposals.

See: Young Farmers' Sponsorship Welcomed

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