Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd has strongly hit back at Finance Minister Simon Hamilton's claims the education department is run like an "independent republic".
The Education Minister accused Mr Hamilton of a "paper-chasing exercise" and said he should be worrying more about his DUP colleague, Health Minister Edwin Poots.
"The only department which has failed to live within its budget despite receiving significant additional resources from the Executive is health," he said.
Mr O'Dowd and Mr Hamilton have been at loggerheads since the Executive decided to 'ringfence' both education and health from further spending cuts – increasing the reductions for other departments.
In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph the DUP Finance Minister claimed Sinn Fein had demanded the inclusion of education as the price of agreeing the last spending round decisions – and it could not be justified.
He also told the Belfast Telegraph that Mr O'Dowd was the only minister who did not participate in an earlier savings delivery plan. But Mr O'Dowd insisted he had told the Finance Minister that he would not be participating –and would make no apology for prioritising education.
"It is a good idea because it's the cornerstone of any society. If we want to improve people's lives, education is the way forward," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"If we want to keep people out of the justice system, education is the way forward. If we want to improve people's health, education is the way forward. If we want to deliver a new economy in this society, then education is the way forward." Responding to Mr Hamilton's assertion that there was more public concern over health than education, he said: "To claim that education does not merit protection or that the public is not concerned about the further improvements we need to make is not justified."
The special protection given to health and education left other departments needing deeper cuts to their budgets.
But in suggesting Mr Hamilton should turn his attention to health, Mr O'Dowd was referring to a rebuke of Edwin Poot's department delivered in his latest Budget public expenditure statement by the Finance Minister.
Mr Hamilton hit out at "poor budget management" in the Department of Health.
Mr O'Dowd said: "The only department which has failed to live within its budget despite receiving significant additional resources from the Executive is health.
"Perhaps the Finance Minister might want to get exasperated by that department's financial mismanagement instead of worrying about a paper-chasing exercise of savings delivery plans of which he has no role."
He said he wrote to Mr Hamilton's predecessor Sammy Wilson "advising him that I would not be participating in the Department of Finance monitoring exercises" – and had reiterated his position "many times since".
"What disappoints me but doesn't surprise me is that we have to explain to Executive colleagues why it is a good idea to ringfence education.
"It's a good idea because it's the cornerstone of any society."
Story so far
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton revealed how Sinn Fein forced the Executive to 'ringfence' education spending as the price for agreement on a package of departmental cuts totalling £78m. And with more cuts looming, the DUP minister also insisted there had been or justification for education to be 'ringfenced' compared to health which is also protected.