SDLP urges end to 'dependency'
The leader of the SDLP has warned Northern Ireland's peace process has shallow roots and urged the Irish government to champion an economic accord similar to past deals which helped end violence.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell said the region needed to end its economic dependency on Britain, take on devolved borrowing powers from London and free itself from the "choke lead" held by the Treasury over spending.
Dr McDonnell ruled out coalition with the Tories, pledged to oppose welfare cuts and said his party would represent the best interests of Northern Ireland rather than be beholden to other parties in post-poll negotiations.
The former South Belfast MP said: "We have a choice.
"We can choose further austerity or choose a prosperity process."
The SDLP, which was born out of the civil rights movement at the start of the Troubles, was instrumental during talks which led to the IRA disbanding, supported by the British and Irish governments, but has slipped behind Sinn Fein in recent elections. It held three seats in the previous parliament.
Dr McDonnell said: "The two governments have realised our peace that we established has shallow roots."
The security forces are still on high alert for attacks by dissident republicans and the powersharing ministerial Executive at Stormont has been threatened by a row over welfare reform and issues outstanding from the peace process which are still not totally resolved.
Much of Dr McDonnell's speech focused on the economy and the need to grow the private sector and end dependency upon the block grant subsidy paid by the Treasury to run public services in Northern Ireland.
He called for the Irish government to become involved, in a throwback to earlier peace process deals like the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, in negotiating an economic accord.
"We can continue on the road that we are on of dependency, of cuts in every direction and watching things die a death by a thousand cuts or we can have the ambition to build an economy, we can have an ambition to build an economy that will be sustainable and one day will be able to stand on its own feet," he said.
Taking Scottish-style powers over borrowing was one route to economic freedom, he suggested.
"Through this mechanism, Scotland has succeeded in winning the argument to allow them to borrow money and issue their own bonds," he said.
"The same powers should be extended to Northern Ireland to enable us to stimulate our private sector through infrastructure projects."
The Stormont House Agreement between the five main political parties before Christmas envisaged thousands of job losses and wider austerity but aimed to deal with thorny problems, like those injured by decades of violence.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein have rejected the welfare reform element which they claim would hurt the most vulnerable.
Dr McDonnell said: "Now we know the Treasury in London calls the tune and pulls the choke lead.
"We have subsidy politics and as a result we have politics without ambition or meaningful social development."
He added: "Nowhere is it written that Northern Ireland must be subsidised until the end of time, or that our young people must emigrate in droves.
"A century ago our industry led the world.
"Now, in the 21st century, as all of Europe takes up the challenge of reindustrialisation, we must too.
"We must have ambition for our children."
Other powers the party wants devolved include:
:: Broadcasting, telecommunications and the internet;
:: Aviation. Northern Ireland has been considering a cut in the rate of Air Passenger Duty to compete with Dublin Airport.
:: Seabed resource rights, with the potential for off-shore windfarms and tidal turbines increasing;
:: National insurance and the minimum wage;
:: Drug policy;
:: Local elections;
:: Lottery spending;
:: Consumer protection.
Opposition to reducing the benefit cap to £23,000 and support for remaining in Europe were among the promises made at the manifesto launch in Belfast.
The party is pro-European in contrast to most of its local rivals.
Its manifesto said: "We have already seen the economic damage done by the threats of a British exit.
"Should these threats become a reality, much of the progress made in Northern Ireland would be reversed and the work to build a better future for all made more difficult."
Spending commitments focused on more social housing; job creation by small and medium-sized firms; affordable child care; investing in roads maintenance; more top quality office space, and high quality public services in rural areas.
They also included reducing the rate of VAT to 5% in tourism and hospitality; protecting schools from arbitrary closure, and investing in a comprehensive school transport system.
The party said it would call for support for older job seekers and introduce special "social tariffs" for energy for the elderly and disabled.
Other manifesto pledges included a new Green Investment Deal to insulate homes, upgrading the road between Derry and Belfast, and restoring the old rail link between Armagh and Portadown in Co Armagh.
The SDLP won three seats in the last parliament, in Foyle, South Belfast and South Down.
Dr McDonnell, a former GP, ruled out joining a coalition with the Conservatives.
He acknowledged the party would "tilt" toward Labour but said it had differed on austerity.
"We will take our own counsel when the results come in and we will act in the best interests of this region," he said.