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Budget is bludgeoned through as ministers stage revolt

By Noel McAdam

A four-year Budget threatening thousands of job cuts and a squeeze on vulnerable families finally came into effect last night amid acrimonious clashes in the Assembly.

And there were recriminations after Ulster Unionist ministers Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy marched in to vote against the blueprint alongside their party colleagues, risking |censure under Assembly rules.

The Ministerial Code requires members of the Executive to respect the collective decision of ministers and senior UUP members accept that health chief Mr McGimpsey and Employment and Learning boss Mr Kennedy were in breach.

But it is unlikely that the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, whose combined strength voted the Budget through, will move against the UUP men, fearing the tactic could rebound on them in the forthcoming election battle in May.

Instead DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson said: “We have got a better means of discipline available to us — in a matter of days the people of Northern Ireland will have their say and I think they will deal harshly with those irresponsible members.”

Mr McGimpsey remained unapologetic and confirmed he will remain in office to combat others who he said had suggested raising money to offset cuts by introducing charges.

“This is a point of principle and a plan where I will not go,” he pledged.

SDLP minister Alex Attwood, who also voted against the Budget with his UUP counterparts at last week’s Executive meeting, was simply absent for the votes in the Assembly, avoiding any prospect of punishment.

The Social Development |Minister said: “Today is not about how people voted, it is about how people have been let down. I will not concede one inch of ground to the DUP and Sinn Fein and their failure to put in place a Budget that lives up to the needs of |people across Northern Ireland.”

After months of wrangling, more than 40 hours of debate — and only days before the Budget details come into effect at the start of the new financial year — the full plan conceived in London but brought to delivery by MLAs, was finally in place.

Both Ulster Unionist and SDLP attempts to amend the proposals were defeated before a final cross-community endorsement, which was also supported by Alliance.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson admitted it was a “tough” Budget but that despite the sniping from the sidelines by the UUP and SDLP the “best effort” had been made.

Opening the debate, he turned on Mr McGimpsey’s courting of the media despite the Budget |revision which saw an additional £120m allocated to health.

“I still find it disgraceful that the Health Minister can seek to |justify his action, or maybe rather inaction, in the media when he has never approached his Executive colleagues with any plans to make the health service delivery more efficient in Northern |Ireland,” he argued.

“I have said many times that I welcome all new ideas, but, sadly, nothing realistic has emerged from the loudest critics in the Assembly.

“Any ideas that have emerged are contradictory or display a profound degree of ignorance of the public expenditure regime.”

UUP finance spokesman David McNarry countered: “This is budgeting on the hoof and it is very untidy.

“The outcome of the way that this dysfunctional Executive do their business proves to the Assembly that they are not working for the people of Northern |Ireland.”

Proposing an amendment, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said the Budget “fails the people of Northern Ireland” and was instead a formula for thousands of job losses which would heap “a mountain of misery” on low-paid workers, students, teachers, school-children, the construction industry and health service users.

She added: “The SDLP took the unprecedented step of producing a 70-page paper setting out how we would deal with the cuts, protect services and stimulate the economy.

“Instead the DUP and Sinn Fein forced through a lazy and unimaginative Budget.

“This is has been a real failure of devolution.”

Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey lambasted the SDLP approach as “juvenile” in attempting to ignore that the cuts were imposed by the British Government and trying “for their own narrow interests” to blame the DUP and Sinn Fein.

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