Alliance leader David Ford has accused his Stormont Executive colleagues of mismanaging Northern Ireland’s finances by supporting populist give-aways, while refusing opportunities to raise more money via taxation.
Addressing an outwardly confident party which gathered in the La Mon Hotel in the Co Down hills above Belfast, Mr Ford tore into the DUP and Sinn Fein’s leadership of the Executive – but made clear that he has no plans to take Alliance out of the power-sharing administration and into opposition.
In a lengthy address to the party faithful, Mr Ford reminded them that the party had been “told that we would be wiped out as a result of the flag protests”, yet went on to increase its representation in Belfast City Hall in last May’s elections and increase its European election vote.
While he attacked the UUP, SDLP and the Greens, Mr Ford’s strongest criticism was reserved for Northern Ireland’s two dominant parties.
He said that it had been a year where there was an “overwhelming” sense of repeated crisis at Stormont.
“Peter threatens to resign over the OTR scheme. Martin threatens to withdraw support for policing because Gerry is questioned by police.
“Peter threatens a graduated response to lawful parades determinations, and marches all of unionism and loyalism once more to the top of the hill, or should I say Twaddell.
“There they have sat for over 600 days, burning up £15 million of the police budget that they pretend they care about, and putting the very lives of officers at risk from terrorist attack.”
Recalling the numerous Stormont ‘crises’ of the last year, he said: “No wonder the vox pops on the radio are so relentlessly disparaging of what passes for politics at Stormont.”
The South Antrim MLA said that the DUP and Sinn Fein were continuing to “artificially inflate the number of teachers we train while simultaneously announcing 500 job losses for teachers”.
Arguing that his party – which wants to see water charges introduced and an end to the cap on rates for Northern Ireland’s most opulent properties – is prepared to take unpopular economic decisions to balance the books, he said: “I am proud that we, and only we, take a responsible approach to public expenditure, including proper consideration of fair and progressive taxation and service charges.
“Boasting about paying the lowest household taxes in the UK does nothing to provide services to those in most need, and cuts no ice when ministers take their begging bowl to the Treasury.”
He accused Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green Party of being more concerned about votes than they are about protecting the “most vulnerable” by attempting to block welfare reform.
“Don’t let them get away with their claims that it’s all about protecting the vulnerable, because it’s not. It’s about protecting their own votes.
We can’t protect vulnerable people if we have to take another £200 million or more out of public services to fund further adjustments to benefits.
“We can’t protect the vulnerable if we have to take hundreds of millions out to pay fines to the Treasury.”
The Justice Minister’s Stormont Executive colleague, Stephen Farry, had earlier told the conference that zero hours contracts had brought “uncertainty about levels of income and disruption to family life”.
The Employment Minister said that he had brought “comprehensive proposals” to the Executive which “would be going further [to regulate zero hours contracts] than any other part of the UK”.