Belfast Telegraph

Alarmed by the cuts: it’s not just us, David Cameron

Influential figures echo the Telegraph’s disquiet over the economic pain to come

By David Gordon

Alarm bells about the Northern Ireland economy are getting louder — and being sounded by a growing list of influential figures.

But it remains to be seen if David Cameron and his Government are listening — and whether anything will be done to allay the fears.

The Belfast Telegraph has been relentlessly focusing on the particular threat to the province from looming Government spending cuts.

That's because of the already feeble state of the economy here and the fact that it is more dependent on the public sector than any other UK region.

Experts have made clear that this reliance means it will suffer disproportionately from UK-wide cuts.

Warnings have also been mounting up in recent weeks from across the political spectrum, as well as from a diverse number of bodies ranging from business and voluntary sector organisations to the trade union movement.

This newspaper highlights a cross-section of the opinion again today, as we once more hammer home the crucial point about the potentially devastating impact of the cutbacks.

Just yesterday doubts were again raised at Stormont over whether Northern Ireland's case is being heeded by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

Assembly Finance Minister Sammy Wilson told MLAs of a less than positive response he has received in discussions with Treasury ministers.

“At those meetings, we highlighted our unique circumstances, although I must say that the response to our pleading for special cases was not that favourable,” Mr Wilson said.

“Nevertheless, I highlighted to the Treasury ministers that we have a higher dependence on the public sector, that we are at a different stage of the economic cycle and we have particular problems with the amount of finance from the banking sector because of the structure of banking in Northern Ireland.”

The Finance Minister also underlined “real concerns” yesterday about the impact of spending cuts on the province's flagging construction industry.

The Construction Employers Federation is among the organisations whose views are featured on these pages today.

Its managing director John Armstrong also told this newspaper: “The local economy depends heavily on the construction industry — considerably more so than the UK average.

“As every £1 invested in construction generates £2.84 in economic activity, construction drives our economy.

“Following the downturn in private activity, construction now relies heavily upon the public investment in the building and maintenance of our housing, schools, hospitals, roads and water networks.”

Also quoted today is the man tipped to be the next Leader of the Opposition, Labour leadership favourite David Miliband.

Organisations and individuals quoted on these pages come from very different perspectives — and some disagree radically over the way forward for the economy here.

Likewise at Stormont, there have been frictions between parties on how to respond tactically to cuts coming from Westminster.

But there is general agreement that a very rough time is ahead and that specific measures are needed to help get the province through it.

The challenge now is to put London on the spot, on whether any such measures are coming anytime soon.

Analysis: A balance must be struck

This may be a good time to spell out what the Belfast Telegraph is not saying about cutbacks. We are not arguing that Northern Ireland should be kept isolated in a cuts-free bubble, while the rest of the UK takes all the pain.

Nor are we suggesting a simplistic begging bowl, give-us-more-money approach be made to the Treasury.

Our first aim is simply to draw attention to the scale of the problem heading this way.

This is a simple matter of logic. The province is more reliant on public spending than any other UK region.

It stands to reason it will be hardest hit by a one-size-fits-all approach to slashing spending.

Our second aim is to encourage informed debate on policy options and the way forward - with a view to demanding answers and action from David Cameron's Government.

Mr Cameron has already accepted that Northern Ireland is a special case. He has promised to make the entire province an enterprise zone, although details are still very scarce.

The coalition Government has promised a paper on ways to “rebalance” the Northern Ireland economy.

There are fears, however, that swiftly ripping public funding out of the economy could actually collapse the private sector.

A pensioner overly reliant on a walking stick will not be helped by simply kicking the stick away.

The various organisations and individuals featured on these pages have contrasting views on what needs to be done.

The trade unions are encouraging people onto the streets for protests this month and next.

On the other hand, economist Richard Ramsey argues that the situation should be seized as an opportunity for public sector reform here, coupled with regional fiscal incentives.

The debates will continue.

So, too, will the Belfast Telegraph's efforts to flag up the seriousness of the situation.

Belfast Telegraph


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