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It's time to streamline Stormont, Simon Hamilton tells DUP conference

By Liam Clarke

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has called for an "National Reform Plan" to slash our dependence on the public sector and build up the role of private enterprise in the economy.

He set out the grim economic situation on the first day of the DUP conference yesterday.

Mr Hamilton said that the £9.6bn subsidy Northern Ireland received from Westminster this year amounted to £5,200 a year for each inhabitant.

In his speech he said this situation called for a "plan that streamlined Stormont, removing the 'ugly scaffolding' and reducing the number of MLAs and departments".

The term "ugly scaffolding" is a quotation from Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader. He used it to describe the elaborate system of checks and balances which can slow decision-making at Stormont.

The theme of party leader Peter Robinson's speech later today is expected to be "Defending Northern Ireland", with a strong emphasis on next May's Westminster elections and on the achievements of the DUP under devolution.

A taster was provided yesterday afternoon in speeches at the gathering by Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader, and various DUP ministers.

Most speakers struck an upbeat and confident note, in marked contrast to DUP conferences in the last century which were often characterised by warning of dangers to the Union. Instead, Mr Dodds told delegates "here in Northern Ireland make no mistake about it - despite the empty antics of nationalists, despite terrorist actions by republicans, and despite ramblings by some sections of the Press - the Union that we cherish has never been stronger".

Mr Dodds, who is MP for North Belfast but not an MLA, lauded the party's record at Westminster. He credited the party with achieving increased funding for the security forces in their fight against terrorism and for securing "the best deal on welfare reform of any region of the UK". This is a reference to an enhanced welfare package allowing us to blunt some effects of welfare reform, including the so-called "bedroom tax".

"Anyone who has studied the Westminster scene can have no doubt about the role the DUP has played not just on Northern Ireland matters but in the nation's affairs over the last five years," he said.

He pointed out that the DUP had been to the fore in achieving the devolution of air passenger duty-raising powers here and was campaigning for the devolution of corporation tax-raising powers.Mr Dodds' speech emphasised the DUP's commitment to the armed forces and ex-service community.

In particular he called for the Armed Forces Covenant to be fully extended to Northern Ireland. A House of Commons report last year found that, due to devolution, there were some specific benefits for the armed forces community that exist in Great Britain but are not available in Northern Ireland.

These include improved access to IVF treatment, priority in accessing NHS healthcare, additional priority in accessing social housing, and certain educational entitlements.

Mr Dodds hit out at the discrepancies. He said: "The Northern Ireland Office claims it is being implemented 93% in Northern Ireland. A soldier who charged the Normandy beaches wasn't risking 93% of their life but 100%. A soldier who patrolled our streets against the terrorist onslaught wasn't risking 93% of their life but 100%. A soldier fighting the Taliban wasn't risking 93% of their life but 100%.

"They earned, and we owe nothing less."

Quotes

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster told of the Executive success in dealing with unemployment. "We said we would promote 25,000 jobs, we have already promoted almost 35,000 jobs. We said we would secure investment commitments of over £1bn, we have already secured over £1.5bn. We said we would secure additional wages and salaries worth £265m, we have already secured wages and salaries worth £306m."

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