A stark warning on public spending cuts in Northern Ireland has been sounded by First Minister Peter Robinson, following talks at Stormont with David Cameron.
Mr Cameron paid his first Prime Ministerial visit to the province yesterday, holding talks with Assembly leaders including Mr Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
He confirmed that the Executive would be given the option of deferring its share of a planned £6bn cutbacks programme this year across the UK.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Robinson said this option would lead to a double hit next year, when “major cuts” would be taking affect.
The First Minister also said the Executive may have to consider selling off assets to protect frontline services.
Mr McGuinness spoke of “threatening noises” from London on cuts and said Stormont would have to “play the hand that we are dealt with”.
Speaking to the media after the Stormont Castle meeting, Mr Cameron made clear that Northern Ireland will face its share of measures to reduce the UK's multi-billion pound deficit.
“No part of the United Kingdom will be singled out for cuts, of course not. But we are all in this together. We all have to deal with the deficit together,” the Prime Minister said.
Details of the £6bn savings plan for the current financial year are to be unveiled next week by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. It is viewed as small step towards much greater cutbacks in public spending in future.
Northern Ireland's share of the £6bn will become clearer when new Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne spells out the savings blueprint. Mr Robinson yesterday said the local figure could be as high as £200m.
The UK's three devolved authorities have now each been given the option of deferring their contributions towards the £6bn.
“That offer is on the table for us, and our Executive will look at the benefit of deferral, which gives us a longer time for planning, or of taking it on the chain straight away,” Mr Robinson said.
“We do need to remember taking those kind of decisions — and the public need to be aware — that the cuts that are presently being contemplated are simply the in-year reductions and that the major cuts are those which will come in the autumn.
“And we therefore as an admin
istration need to take into account if we are to defer that it will be a deferral on top of those major cuts that we will hear about during the course of the autumn.”
The First Minister also said disposal of publicly-owned assets may have to be considered.
“If we are at the stage of having to look at front line services, it might well be better to let go of an asset, rather than holding on to it.”
Mr McGuinness stressed Stormont's opposition to cuts, but also pointed to the “reality” of “threatening noises” from London on budget matters.
“But as always we have to play the hand that we are dealt with,” the deputy First Minister stated.
Mr Cameron and Secretary of State Owen Paterson also held talks with other party leaders.
Mr McGuinness said he had been assured that the Saville inquiry report on Bloody Sunday would be published in weeks.
Mr Robinson signalled that he will still be in his job in the autumn, quelling speculation following his shock General Election defeat. The DUP leader spoke about heading an investment conference drive in the US with Mr McGuinness in the autumn.
When asked if this meant he would still be in charge, he replied: “Was there some doubt about me being here in the autumn?”
So just what was on the itinerary during one of the shortest ever visits to Northern Ireland by a PM?
10.15am: Cameron answers questions at a press conference at the Treasury in London.
12.40pm: Ten minutes early, the Cameron cavalcade lands safely at George Best Belfast City Airport.
12.45pm: Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey welcomes his political partner, now Prime Minister, to Northern Ireland at the airport entrance.
1pm: Cameron and Secretary of State Owen Paterson park 20 yards from the front door of Stormont Castle.
1.52pm: Cameron and Paterson emerge from talks with First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
2.05pm: Cameron and Paterson meet leaders of all the political parties at Stormont House.
2.40pm: Cameron travels to Comber to visit Mash Direct, the vegetable growing and packaging firm founded by Martin and Tracey Hamilton.
3.30pm: Cameron meets Sir Reg and other members of the Unionist and Conservative project at the City Airport.
4.05pm: Cameron flies out of Northern Ireland, en route to Paris.
7pm: Cameron meets French President Nicholas Sarkozy.