Belfast Telegraph

Painful decisions lie ahead for Northern Ireland economy, says Peter Robinson

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland’s battered economy is likely to remain bogged down in recession for a long time ahead, First Minister Peter Robinson has forecast.

Ahead of the first Stormont Executive meeting since July, Mr Robinson reiterated recent grim warnings that looming spending cuts mean “very difficult decisions are inevitable”.

And he urged tomorrow’s meeting at Stormont to adopt a “strategic approach” rather than sinking into a squabble over individual departmental or political party interests.

But inter-party tensions on the Executive immediately surfaced again as Mr Robinson came under fire from both the Ulster Unionists and SDLP.

Employment and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey said rather than talking Northern Ireland down the focus of the Executive should be on revitalising the economy, with the help of national Government.

And SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie insisted Stormont would not weather the storm if the DUP and Sinn Fein continued to use their ministerial majority to control the Executive.

Mr Robinson said, however, dealing with the Tory-Liberal coalition Government’s cuts would present the Executive with its biggest challenge yet.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

The former Finance Minister referred back to his June alert that supporting “the Tory/UUP proposals for severe cuts (£80bn over five years) rather than a more gradual approach would endanger economic recovery in Northern Ireland.

“The prospect of our public expenditure being cut by 20-25% (in the region of £2bn) will have a devastating impact and likely bog Northern Ireland down in recession for a prolonged period,” he said.

With the Assembly due to hold its first full plenary session of the new term on Monday, and the next Stormont election only months away, the DUP leader argued the public “will not quickly forgive” ministers who put the interests of their parties or departments before the overall interests of Northern Ireland.

He said: “Rather than simply salami slicing budgets the Executive must agree a strategic approach to the challenges that we are faced with. This will undoubtedly mean difficult and painful decisions.”

In May the Executive was told it must find new savings totalling £128m on top of a further £393m that were already planned for the current financial year.

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