The grim reality of the extent of spending cuts over the next four years has been laid bare by Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.
He insisted yesterday the Executive has only weeks to reach agreement and if the Assembly has not settled on a Budget by January it will have “failed in its duty”.
In a rare show of unanimity, the Assembly voiced “serious concern” and pledged to try to protect “frontline” services, including hospitals and education.
But Mr Wilson warned that anyone believing the Government will fundamentally review its Budget strategy is “living in cloud cuckoo land” and urged Assembly Members to produce more specific proposals.
As parties supported the Executive’s decision to demand a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, the Finance chief argued: “Even if there is an opportunity to negotiate some changes, they will be around the periphery, the core of the Budget has now been determined.
“If anyone really thinks that the whole spending in the UK is going to be looked at again by the Chancellor, they are living in cloud cuckoo land.
“Doing so would throw the money markets into a flurry.” To maintain services at their current level in the next financial year, Mr Wilson said Northern Ireland would need £580m more than it is going to get.
The year after that the gap will rise to £850m, he said, and £1,100m by the third year, rising to £1,400m in the final financial year — close to a cut of £4bn overall.
“We need to have a Budget in place, debated and through the Assembly by January at the latest. That means that the Executive have to agree a Budget in the next couple of weeks, get it through the statutory process of consultation and get it here on the floor of the Assembly for debate and decision. If we do not do that, we will be failing in our duty.”
Mr Wilson drew the anger of Sinn Fein when he ridiculed some of its proposals for savings. Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd accused him of “disgraceful” behaviour which would not help the Executive to achieve a consensus.
Opening the two-hour debate, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: “The outlook is bleak, but it does not have to be like this. There is a better way — through stimulus, investing in jobs, building infrastructure, tackling waste and protecting frontline services.
“The banks, which were greedy, unregulated and responsible for most of the current crisis, need to play their part in the recovery. We propose that the four major banks in the North should contribute to a development bond of £400m.”
Ulster Unionist David McNarry said: “We must, today, go away having become Team Northern Ireland, pulling together for the sake of all our people. The people are crying out and looking to us for leadership at this time of crisis. We must not fail them.
“This is all about Executive accountability — no sulks, no solo runs, no promises that we cannot deliver. It is all about protecting jobs and saying to people that things are going to be very tough. We are asking the people to put their trust in us to take them through the worst times that we are going to experience.”
SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said: “Unfortunately, the Tories were elected to reduce the deficit, and, having announced how they propose to do it, they will not drop it just because we do not like it. What makes this situation iniquitous is that the money does not come out of the Northern Ireland block (grant), where we could all protest about budget cuts. It comes directly out of the pockets and purses of benefit recipients.”
And for Alliance, Chris Lyttle said: “With effective planning, cutting spending does not have to mean cutting services. Some additional revenue raising in Northern Ireland may be required.”