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Northern Ireland Programme for Government approved despite SDLP revolt

By Noel McAdam

Stormont ministers have been accused of a lack of clear targets in the plan to govern Northern Ireland over the next few years.

Assembly members gave a broad welcome to the finalised Programme for Government which was published yesterday almost a year after officials began working on it.

Four of the five Executive parties supported the blueprint which includes commitments to ‘promote’ 25,000 jobs and moves to combat the impact of welfare reform changes.

Only the SDLP — which has one minister on the Executive, Alex Attwood — voted against the revamped 60-page document which sets out future strategy for education, the health service and the elderly.

First Minister Peter Robinson, however, insisted: “The message is that we have listened to what we have been told.”

Opening the five-hour set-piece debate, he added: “...we are confident that the finalised Programme for Government presents a real and viable business plan to move us forward, grow our economy and achieve the social changes that are necessary to ensure that our community — a single, unified community — moves from strength to strength.

“In simple terms, people want delivery.

“They want delivery on the ground that they can see, feel and understand; they want good jobs; they want to live in safe, peaceful and clean communities; and they want to know that they will receive effective services when they need them.”

But the SDLP’s Alban Maginness said ministers had put the “cart before the horse” and were now attempting to “retro-fit” the proposals to govern Northern Ireland onto a Budget which is already agreed.

Accusing ministers of a “motherhood and apple pie approach”, he said it was not an efficient or effective way to conduct business and there was a lack of measurable targets or detail on plans to combat the likely serious effect of welfare changes.

Along with former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, he said Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland had overturned the commitment of previous ministers to a mortgage relief scheme to help homeowners and there was “nothing of any substance” for helping victims of the Troubles or crime.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness attacked the “negativity” of the SDLP and pointed out that Mr Attwood was not present at last week’s Executive meeting which finalised the PfG and leader Alasdair McDonnell had not taken part in the debate.

And outgoing Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott pointed out consultations on the draft PfG ended just three weeks ago. “I would like to know how the many responses from various businesses as well as the community and voluntary sector were collated and how those views were taken into account,” he said.

Mr Robinson said: “We will put in place arrangements to ensure that rigorous delivery plans are in place to meet our commitments.

The PfG was finally passed by 73 votes to 11.

A shared future in Northern Ireland is Peter Robinson's key target

“For the first time in a generation,” First Minister Peter Robinson said yesterday, “we have completed a full Assembly term and have begun the job of building a better future.”

The revamped Programme for Government included his already personally-stated commitment to “bring our community together through education”.

The three measures to achieve this include a ministerial advisory group to bring forward recommendations to the Minister of Education for the advancement of shared education; all children having the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015; and, thirdly, increasing the number of schools that share facilities by that year.

“These are real commitments, and, together with a new pledge to actively seek local agreement to reduce the number of peace walls, alongside the development of our Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy, I fully expect to see this society coming together in new ways to deliver the shared future that we all want,” the DUP leader added, pointing out that “enhanced commitments” in the programme include:

  • a £375m injection through foreign direct investment — an increase from £300m in the draft programme,
  • a commitment for increased drawdown of EU funds,
  • increasing the value of manufacturing exports by 20%,
  • raising visitor numbers to 4.2m,
  • increasing tourist revenue to £676m by 2013.

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