Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey levelled an accusation of “hypocrisy” against political rivals yesterday as the row over David Cameron's comments on Northern Ireland's public sector rages on.
The UUP’s electoral link-up with the Tories has been coming under heavy fire after Mr Cameron said Government was “too big” here.
He also singled the province out as a region where the state accounts for a bigger share of the economy than it did in “communist countries in the old Eastern Bloc”.
With all the other main parties rounding on the UUP, the controversy blighted the launch yesterday of the joint Tory-Ulster Unionist manifesto.
Sir Reg hit back during the event in Newtownabbey, flanked by senior Conservative William Hague.
He accused other parties of “hypocrisy” in light of their previous comments on the size of the public sector.
“We're not lying down under these allegations,” he said.
The DUP's Rev Willie McCrea, who the UUP leader is trying to unseat in South Antrim, yesterday said: “The Tories have said they will cut £6bn from essential public services throughout the United Kingdom this year. That means £200m coming from Northern Ireland's essential public services.”
In the Assembly yesterday, DUP First Minister Peter Robinson claimed the Tory plan would directly hit “jobs and services”.
The Tories are backing a spending squeeze as an alternative to Labour’s plan to increase National Insurance. The DUP is opposing the National Insurance rise as well. The UUP has been pointing out that the DUP leader has made similar remarks to Mr Cameron about the public sector here being “over large”.
Mr Hague yesterday defended his party leader, saying: “We want to re-balance the Northern Ireland economy to end its over-dependence on the public sector.
“But we recognise that it will take time, perhaps as long as 25 years.”
He also spoke enthusiastically of the potential for the UUP from the Tory partnership.
“Imagine the message that would be sent around the world if, in time, the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary, the Environment Secretary or even the Prime Minister in a UK Government sat for a constituency in Northern Ireland,” he stated.
Mr Hague denied the decision to back unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor in Fermanagh and South Tyrone represented a climb down on a promise to contest all 18 seats under the Tory-UUP banner.
“I don't think it's a broken pledge because there is a candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone who has promised to take the Conservative whip if elected,” he said.