Belfast Telegraph

DUP hits back in row over funding OAPs' free travel

By Steven Alexander

The DUP and Ulster Unionists are driving in opposite directions again after the minister responsible for transport was accused of using pensioners as a political bargaining tool.

Earlier this week the UUP's Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy suggested that free public transport for senior citizens could be in jeopardy after the Executive failed to reach agreement on spending.

Following the failure to decide on the reallocation of funds –what is known as the June monitoring round – Mr Kennedy suggested the £9m needed to provide free public transport for the over-65s may now be in doubt.

Mr Kennedy said he was a "huge supporter" of the scheme, but he added: "I think the fundamental challenge to the Executive is: will it maintain a concessionary fare scheme paid for in full by the Executive?"

DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said Mr Kennedy's comments were simply an attempt to use pensioners as political leverage. And he said the DUP – which introduced the scheme – would veto any attempt to remove concessionary fares for older people.

He added: "It is wrong that Danny Kennedy would use this issue in order to gain leverage ahead of the monitoring round.

"Let us be clear – no one is putting the concessionary travel scheme under threat apart from Danny Kennedy.

"If cash is an issue then he has the option to reallocate resources within his department or use the extensive reserves that Translink has."

The Ulster Unionists hit back, saying that they also wanted the scheme shielded from cutbacks.

Ross Hussey MLA said: "This scheme must be protected as it would have a devastating effect on many older people – the people we should be doing everything in our power to support."

Background

With a Senior SmartPass, anyone over the age of 65 can travel anywhere in Northern Ireland on any Translink bus or rail service free of charge. They can also enjoy free cross border travel. The scheme costs around £9m a year. While both main unionist parties say they want it protected, the UUP believes an inability to reach agreement on Stormont spending has placed it in jeopardy.

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