Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Robinson and Sinn Fein in budget deadline row

DUP leader Peter Robinson

Tensions emerged last night between Sinn Fein and First Minister Peter Robinson over his view that a budget must be agreed within two weeks.

A row threatened to break out in the Executive after the DUP leader used a major speech to apparently go public on their private negotiations and to press for a swift decision.

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy said he was surprised by the move. He added that Sinn Fein would not be rushed, and was prepared to work through the Christmas holidays to get the "right" deal.

The clash came after Mr Robinson told a meeting of the Chief Executives Forum in Templepatrick that politicians were nearing agreement on a budget that could freeze civil service pay, reduce the use of consultants and quangos, and see ministers take a 5-10% pay cut.

"Final agreement has not yet been reached, but I hope we can make significant progress in the days ahead," he said.

He added: "It's not just that it shouldn't be left to the New Year, but with the requirement of consultation, the Assembly process and the dissolution of the Assembly in late March, there would simply not be the time available. One way or another, we will have a draft Budget before Christmas."

He later pointed to a target date of December 15.

But Mr Murphy said: "I have to say I am surprised that Peter Robinson has made public the detail of the discussions that have been ongoing on the budget.

"While there are areas of agreement, as laid out in his speech, there exists the need to address additional areas of maximising income. This process has not concluded.

"It should be obvious to Peter Robinson that rushed decisions on economic matters are more often than not bad decisions.

"The actions that we agree in the time ahead will have repercussions for all our people. That is why it is essential that we take our time and make the right decisions."

He said Sinn Fein would not impose 'Tory cuts' and wanted to avoid a budget that endangered economic growth. The Sinn Fein minister was also critical of any suggestion that the DUP's Finance Minister may have to step in to implement an emergency budget as a stop-gap.

"We believe that parties can agree a budget that delivers for all our people. Sinn Fein is continuing to work towards this end," he said.

"Hopefully, this can be concluded within the time ahead. If, however, it requires us to work through the Christmas break and into the new year then we are prepared to do so.

"However, threats, false deadlines and rushed decisions are not the way to build agreement or meet the needs of our people now and into the future."

Earlier, Mr Robinson had said: "I know that there are some in the media who have cast doubt on the willingness of Sinn Fein to agree a budget in Northern Ireland, in advance of elections in the Republic of Ireland.

"Time will tell, but the engagement we have had in recent weeks has been a constructive engagement, and I remain hopeful that we can have an agreed budget in the next few weeks.

"Even from a political point of view, it is difficult to see what credibility Sinn Fein would have in the Republic if they were unable to take decisions in Northern Ireland."

He went on: "Over the next four years, it is impossible to take £4 billion out of the Northern Ireland Executive's spending without having an impact on our economy.

"And that does not even take into account the reduction to the welfare budget.

"Our key role is to spend the money we have available to the best effect and to be responsible in the decisions that we take."

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