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Thousands attend Belfast rally against cuts

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday in protest against the cuts announced in Chancellor George Osborne’s spending review last week, which, it is claimed, could see up to 50,000 public and private sector jobs being lost in Northern Ireland.

The march, which was backed by the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), began at St Anne’s Cathedral and made its way to Belfast City Hall.

And the message from union leaders was clear: the protest marked the beginning of an ongoing campaign to either change the course of action being taken by the Government — or help bring it down.

Around 5,000 people — including Sinn Fein Stormont ministers Caitriona Ruane and Gerry Kelly and SDLP minister Alex Attwood — defied the cold and wet October weather to oppose proposed cuts outlined by Chancellor George Osbourne last Wednesday.

Under the proposals in the Comprehensive Spending Review the Northern Ireland Executive stands to lose £4bn from its budget over the next four years.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson’s claim that the protest was “a waste of time” proved a red rag to the crowd who booed and chanted “out, out, out” everytime his name was mentioned by official speakers.

Ann Donnelly, joint regional convener of public service trade union UNISON, had travelled to Belfast from Londonderry with 50 people. She said: “My message to Sammy Wilson is get real. People are losing their jobs and my members in Derry are angry. They don’t want any cuts and they don’t want any job losses. That’s all they have seen for the last three years and they don’t want to see any more.”

Civil servant Sean Garland, who is a NIPSA branch secretary in south Belfast, said he attended the rally to make a visible protest against the scale of the cuts.

“Private sector, private banks and private finance houses caused this recession. They are the ones who are causing the budget deficit and they are the ones who should be paying for it,” he said.

Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary of ICTU, one of seven speakers who addressed the crowd, said imposing a two per cent wealth tax on the richest 10 per cent would raise £78bn in one year. If we had a Robin Hood tax on speculation and the excesses of investment banks and hedge funds, we could raise £20bn,” he said.

Eugene McGlone, vice president of ICTU, urged local politicians to stand up for their constituents.

“We want all politicians of all parties to at least stand up their constituents and oppose the obscene visitation of this attack on the most vulnerable people.”

MLAs are due to meet today for an emergency debate on the cuts.

Sinn Fein ministers join the marchers

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson may have branded the anti-cuts rally in Belfast “pointless” — but the attendance of three Executive ministers told its own story.

Sinn Fein ministers Caitriona Ruane and Gerry Kelly’s presence at the parade highlighted the growing rift between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the cuts issue.

SDLP Social Development Minister Alex Attwood also joined the protest which the DUP minister had called “a waste of time”.

The DUP fear Sinn Fein have already gone into election campaign mode.

DUP ministers are pushing ahead to make cuts in their departmental budgets despite party leader Peter Robinson’s demand for a meeting with the Prime Minister to haggle over Stormont’s budget.

The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister emerged from a three-hour emergency Executive meeting on Friday to demand a meeting with David Cameron to “clarify” if an £18bn commitment would be honoured.

The commitment was given by the previous Labour |government following the St Andrews Agreement but there are now major doubts that all the cash will come to the Executive.

At Friday’s emergency Executive meeting sources say there was an evident divide between the DUP attitude to the cuts and Sinn Fein's response.

One source at the meeting said: “The DUP ministers appear to be on message with Sammy Wilson that they have to get down to making the cuts in their Departmental budgets, while the Sinn Fein Ministers are digging their heels in and refusing to budge.

“You get the impression that Sinn Fein has had the posters ready for the street protests this week and that their election campaign for the May Assembly elections is underway.”

The Deputy Chair of Stormont’s Finance Committee David McNarry said he feared Sinn Fein would bring down the Assembly over the cutbacks.

“We have to put a budget together really before the end of this year and I fear that Sinn Fein will refuse to do that and will bring the house down and that will place us in a terrible situation.

“Sinn Fein is saying that it will not implement ‘Tory cuts’ and I suspect that will mean their tactic will be to play this out until next year’s elections,” the Strangford MLA said.

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