As the DUP and Sinn Fein’s fractious relationship further deteriorated yesterday, the Finance Minister warned of ‘horrific’ budget cuts if welfare reform is not agreed.
In an interview with the News Letter, Simon Hamilton said that the £78 million of cuts implemented last week are only a foretaste of the “nightmarish” scenario to come.
Mr Hamilton’s warning of hundreds of millions of pounds being lost in coming years came as a nationalist backlash emerged in response to one of the casualties of last week’s budget cuts — a halt to plans for the expansion of Magee College in Londonderry.
Proposals to increase enrolment at the University of Ulster campus are “off the table” for the foreseeable future, the Alliance higher education minister said.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP responded with fury, and held an impromptu protest at the campus, while Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness vowed that he would ensure the decision comes before the Executive.
Meanwhile, First Minister Peter Robinson has suggested that welfare reform could topple Stormont.
The DUP leader hit back at comments from Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in which he warned that “the political process is in trouble”.
Mr Adams said that the welfare reforms “should be opposed by a united Executive. These changes are not about reform. They are about cuts and they are part of a Thatcherite agenda designed to dismantle the welfare state. And Sinn Fein will oppose them.”
The Louth TD claimed that the Province’s political system is facing its greatest challenge since the Belfast Agreement negotiations in 1998.
The Sinn Fein president said: “The anti-Good Friday Agreement axis within unionism, the pro-unionist stance of the British Secretary of State, the refusal of Downing Street to honour its own obligations, are combining to create the most serious threat to the political institutions in the north in recent years.”
The DUP hit back in three separate statements — from Gregory Campbell, Peter Robinson and then Ian Paisley Jr — which attacked Sinn Fein’s protracted veto of welfare reform.
Mr Robinson said: “Once more we see the self-serving attempt by Sinn Fein to distract public attention from real problems by blaming everyone, except itself, for what it asserts is a crisis that impacts on the political institutions.
“This tired tactic does nothing to solve the problem most likely to bring down the political institutions. By far the most damaging issue that has the potential to end devolution is the shameless denial by Sinn Fein of economic realities resulting from welfare reform.
“Over the past week we have heard from a series of ministers of the first set of consequences resulting from the Sinn Fein imposed cuts arising from its refusal to accept the welfare deal negotiated for Northern Ireland.”
And, in comments which suggest that the DUP could ultimately reassess its position at the Executive table if the current position continues, the first minister added: “Each political party will have to decide whether the benefits of devolution outweigh the financial penalty that the Sinn Fein cuts impose upon our community. Inevitably as the cuts deepen the most vulnerable in our society will be massively impacted.
“Programmes will be reduced or ended. Services will be detrimentally impacted and major capital projects will be binned. This is not an acceptable outcome.”