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School workers in Northern Ireland to strike over looming Tory cuts

By Michael McHugh

The first industrial action since the election over public spending cuts which are planned to intensify under the Tories is scheduled for Monday in Northern Ireland.

Education support workers will work to rule in a protest over job losses and terms and conditions as part of a widespread union backlash against savings in the powersharing government.

Depleted welfare payments brought Stormont to the verge of collapse last year and time is running out to agree a budget for ministers in the Executive for this current year. Thousands of jobs are scheduled to go.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has said fighting austerity would be his party's number one priority in post-poll talks with a new Government while the DUP has supported an easing in the pace of savings.

Sinn Fein West Belfast MP Paul Maskey said: "This was a vote against Tory cuts and this was a vote against all the cuts on welfare reform."

The DUP had hoped to be in the position of "kingmakers" if predictions of a hung parliament had been correct and in a position to extract concessions in exchange for support.

But Grainne Walsh from Belfast-based political consultants Stratagem said the challenge would be to make Northern Ireland relevant across the water and buffer it from extensive cuts.

She said pensions in Northern Ireland accounted for half of the welfare budget and it would be difficult for the Conservatives to make the scale of reductions envisaged without affecting payments to the elderly or disabled.

"I do think they will want the security of DUP or SDLP support at various times because it is too slim a majority; they may be able to negotiate some form of comfort on that but I would not hold out very much hope on that."

The Conservatives are planning a further fall of 7% over the first four years of the next Parliament, with spending increasing in the last year.

Large but unspecified reductions in welfare spending worth £12 billion by 2018 are also due.

Sinn Fein withdrew support for the Stormont House Agreement on welfare reform claiming it would hurt the most vulnerable.

The pre-Christmas Agreement also gave the Executive access to a £2 billion financial package from the Treasury, primarily borrowed.

The deal envisaged the setting of a "sustainable" budget for 2015/16 and establishment of new mechanisms for dealing with the toxic Troubles legacy.

The DUP has warned against cuts to frontline services or rushing to eliminate the budget deficit.

The money the devolved assembly at Stormont has to spend is decided by the Barnett formula based on a change proportionate to that affecting English public services.

Frontline health and education has been largely protected from cuts in England.

All the main Northern Ireland parties favour reducing corporation tax to compete with the Republic of Ireland's investor-friendly 12.5% rate.

During the last Parliament the Conservatives supported the measure, which proponents like the CBI believe could transform a business community struggling with an economy over-reliant on public sector jobs.

David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum on EU membership by 2017.

Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic and leaving the union could have huge trade and travel implications.

EU funding is worth almost a tenth of Northern Ireland's gross domestic product, a report has said, with the farming industry particularly reliant on its subsidies.

None of the major Stormont parties favour an EU exit, although the DUP has refused to rule it out.

Ms Duffy said: "Their heads say no but their hearts say yes."

She said international treaties could be affected by an exit.

"It would be repartitioning of the island in a very profound way.

"However everybody follows the money really in terms of the funding."

The CBI in Northern Ireland said getting the deficit down must be a priority to maintain the UK's credibility in international markets which will keep the cost of borrowing down for growing Northern Ireland businesses and local mortgage holders, while ensuring funds available through the block grant are maximised, rather than spent on interest payments.

Director Nigel Smyth said: "With an EU referendum now likely, business will now want to see an ambitious, achievable reform agenda that will make both the UK and Europe more competitive and prosperous for all.

"The majority of Northern Ireland businesses want to stay in a reformed EU which opens up the world's largest market of 500 million consumers."


From Belfast Telegraph