Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Ed Curran: Celts from Cardiff to Caledonia can't stop Osborne's axe falling

Armageddon Day is almost upon us. The political nerves are starting to fray, from Belfast to Edinburgh to Cardiff. There is more at stake here than jobs in the public services.

The main parties in the Assembly do not relish the thought of facing the electorate in only seven months' time carrying the blame for savage cuts in public expenditure.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have united with their counterparts in Edinburgh and Cardiff under a new Celtic fringe banner.

What an extraordinary political dalliance we are witnessing; a First Minister who wants to preserve the Union, a deputy First Minister who wants nothing to do with the Union and a Scottish First Minister who also wants to break up the UK - all together at the altar of Westminster seemingly singing in harmony from the same hymn-sheet.

Only when Chancellor George Osborne's comprehensive spending review is revealed nine days from now, will we know whether this unlikely axis has saved Ulster's bacon.

Northern Ireland has a strong enough argument on its own to be treated as a special case. I'm not convinced that aligning ourselves with a band of Scottish nationalists, who have a very different long-term agenda, will do us many favours with David Cameron - or some 50 million Englishmen and women who are the real paymasters of the UK. Alex Salmond is vastly at odds with David Cameron's emphasis on strengthening the UK and keeping it intact, a policy which the Prime Minister restated last week at the Conservative Party conference.

Sinn Fein may feel comfortable in Mr Salmond's company but it is hard to see what he has in common with Peter Robinson or any unionist, other than a desire to wring as much money as possible out of Westminster and resist the forthcoming cuts.

We are all in this together and some cuts are inevitable. The best Mr McGuinness can argue after October 20 is that life would have been much worse had he and Peter Robinson not formed a new resistance force with the Scots and Welsh.

Northern Ireland deserves to be treated as a special case for a variety of reasons which have nothing to do with either Scotland or Wales. Our peace remains fragile as can be seen from the 36 major acts of terrorism in the past year and the real fear of more to come.

We are not out of danger. David Cameron, who praised the peace contribution of his predecessors, Major, Blair and Brown, needs to step up to the mark as they did.

The peace process requires constant nurturing. The Good Friday Agreement should have been accompanied by a massive injection of funding from London, America and Europe.

That it wasn't means Northern Ireland continues to this day to need more and not less financial support.

Now we learn that an £18bn deal, apparently agreed behind closed doors at St Andrews in 2006, may not be honoured by the new coalition Government. We know also that Northern Ireland cannot create sufficient private industry jobs to match those that will be lost through public sector cuts.

Another concern specific to Northern Ireland is that the health service here, unlike Scotland and Wales, is underfunded to the tune of £600m. Forty per cent of the population is over 50. As we grow older and live longer, we will place the local NHS under unbearable stress.

Hospitals across the province require urgent upgrading and renovation. More - not less - capital expenditure is required to bring medical services up to 21st century standards.

Messrs Robinson and McGuinness should be making this point to David Cameron but, regrettably, health is a casualty of the petty political in-fighting which goes on at Stormont.

The constant sniping by their respective parties in the Assembly at the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey is most unhelpful.

A promise that front-line health services will be ring-fenced in the spending review sounds generous and reassuring, but it is not enough.

Ring-fencing will still leave Northern Ireland's NHS lagging behind the rest of the UK for years to come. We await Armageddon Day in the hope that the cuts will not be as swathing as anticipated. Northern Ireland might win more sympathy if it went alone to Westminster and fought its own battle.

Let's hope the First Minister of Scotland does not prove more of a hindrance than a help.

Never mind the Scots and Welsh - we need all the goodwill we can get from the English.

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