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Ministers learn the true horrendous depth of spending cuts

By Noel McAdam

The public remains unaware of the scale of spending cuts coming over the next few years, Stormont ministers were told yesterday.

This year’s £128 million cuts total may be only a small part of the savings which will be required, a special Executive ‘away day’ session was told.

The final total squeezed from Northern Ireland coffers in the next three years could approach £1bn, a senior source said.

The four-hour session at Greenmount College near Antrim saw ministers agree to an all-party task force to tackle the crisis.

It includes First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey, Social Development Minister Alex Attwood and Justice Minister David Ford.

None of them, however, made any comment after the meeting, which was deliberately held outside the Stormont environs.

But a senior source said later: “The public have been talked to in terms of percentages, they have not been talked to in terms of cash.

“The £128m may only be a small part of what is needed before this is all dealt with. It is |absolutely horrendous.”

Ministers also agreed in principle to mitigate the effects of cuts on the “most vulnerable”, including families below the poverty line, a spokesman added.

Tensions within the Executive remained, however, after Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, who has demanded his budget should be ‘ring-fenced’, only attended the Greenmount discussions for 45 minutes.

A spokesman for the Ulster Unionist minister said he had a prior engagement to open a £14.1m development at Altnagelvin Hospital for patients with cardiac conditions and strokes. Mr McGimpsey accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of “political skullduggery” in refusing to protect the health service from cutbacks in the same way it will be in Britain.

“The DUP before the Assembly elections said the health budget should rise 20%. Immediately they get elected and I'm the minister, they're arguing there should be no rises,” he said.

However, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said no deparments can be exempt and, because it includes social care and the Fire Service, Mr McGimpsey’s department could not be compared with the mainland.

“The whole point of the ‘away day’ was that ministers could sit down and discuss this, but it seems only one minister has departed from that,” Mr Wilson added.

Sinn Fein MLA Michelle O’Neill said: “Michael McGimpsey needs to start acting like a minister. He needs to stop blaming everyone else for the economic realities facing society here.”

The ‘away day’ session began late after most ministers, along with many other MLAs, attended the funeral of the father of North Down DUP MLA Peter Weir.

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