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Unionist ministers clash in water charges row

By Noel McAdam

DUP and Ulster Unionist ministers were at loggerheads today in a row over water charges as the Executive prepared to take crunch decisions.

The bust-up came as Finance Minister Peter Robinson rounded on health chief Michael McGimpsey over his insistence parties in the Executive should face the consequences of their election manifestos - opposing water charges.

Warning against 'grandstanding', the DUP deputy leader said it was not acceptable for ministers to oppose additional revenue from water "yet hope to be defeated" so they can get a bigger share-out for their departments.

Mr Robinson insisted the Executive would have to move forward on the issue together, and added: "The days of not facing up to the consequence of difficult decisions are over."

He argued the choice for ministers was to accept the broad outline of the proposals set out by the Independent Review Panel last week or accept the cuts in their budgets.

But the UUP minister said: "This is Mr Robinson attempting to get himself out of a hole; remember that the DUP said an economic peace dividend for Northern Ireland was a deal-breaker.

"We have always been opposed to water charges based on the rating system."

Mr McGimpsey said all parties had gone to the electorate in the February Assembly elections on the basis of opposing water charges.

"...this was an undertaking that we gave at the doorsteps. Now it's uncomfortable, and I understand it's uncomfortable for us in government when we go in and look at the books," he told the BBC Let's Talk programme.

"But this was the understanding that we had on the doorsteps in February, we all combined, all the major parties said the same thing, we will not charge you for water for your own households?"

The UUP today said Mr McGimpsey had to fight "tooth and nail" on the Executive for his department and was facing cuts regardless of the water rates issue.

Mr Robinson argued, however: "It is one thing that the Health Minister gets it wrong when attempting to recall what other parties said during and prior to the Assembly election about water charging, but it is rather poor form that he does not know what his own party's position was and is on the issue."

And he said his own party had made clear that while there may be justification for a separate charging mechanism for water services " there does not need to be a significant increase in the overall tax burden" .

Ahead of Thursday's Executive meeting which is expected to reach a verdict on the water charges controversy, the Finance Minister said: "Now that we have the facts out in the open let the debate be open and the result transparent as well."

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