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Sinn Fein stance on spending cuts sparks spat at Stormont

Hopes of a united Stormont front on Government spending cutbacks have taken a hit, with a row between Sinn Fein and other Executive parties.

Sinn Fein Assembly ministers are currently refusing to play a full part in cross-departmental deliberations on slashing budgets.

And the party’s economy spokesman Mitchel McLaughlin yesterday suggested the Executive was “rolling over” by signalling that cuts are inevitable.

But other parties rounded on Sinn Fein, stressing the need for detailed preparations in advance of Stormont's future funding levels being revealed next month.

Assembly sources have made clear that preparations for budget reductions are ongoing within all departments, including those with Sinn Fein ministers. The party's non co-operation stance appears to be mainly limited to not giving the Department of Finance documentation on spending priorities.

Ministers from all parties did take part in a special “away day” discussion on cutback options in July at Greenmount College near Antrim.

A crunch Spending Review statement will be issued by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne on October 20, which will set the Stormont Executive's block grant funding.

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DUP First Minister Peter Robinson spoke this week of cuts of up to £2bn being imposed on local budgets over a four-year period — and warned they would have “a devastating impact”.

His comments prompted a broadside from Sinn Fein, with Mr McLaughlin stating: “It's incredible that Peter Robinson is inviting ministers to anticipate the cuts before we even get the budget statement on October 20.”

He also said the Executive should not be “simply rolling over”, claiming: “We should not accept the inevitability of cuts. We should focus our minds on challenging them.” The DUP hit back, issuing a statement from MLA Peter Weir entitled “economic illiteracy exposed”.

Mr Weir said: “The DUP is in the business of planning for all financial eventualities. Everyone is aware of the fact that public expenditure reductions are inevitable given the nature of decisions already taken by the Conservative/Lib Dem Government.”

SDLP Social Development Minister Alex Attwood accused Sinn Fein of “electoral positioning”.

He added: “However, there are real and credible argument we should be putting to the British Government in order to protect vulnerable families and firms.”

UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said Northern Ireland could not be “immune” from cuts being imposed across the UK.

“We can negotiate the best deal for Northern Ireland but we cannot expect to be exempt,” Sir Reg argued.

“If Sinn Fein really expects that, then they are playing petty politics. In failing to address the issue, SF have lost their sense of the responsibilities of government and this is a mistake for every person in Northern Ireland.”

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said: “Forward planning for any budget is vital, especially at times of real pressure.

“The notion from Sinn Fein that preparation is defeatism is totally counter productive. There is a need for a unity of purpose within the Executive.”

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