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A punishing time ahead for Northern Ireland

Submitted by on 27 Sep 2010 – 10:20

By Shaun Woodward, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Only weeks before the General Election the people of Northern Ireland got a bitter foretaste of the punishing cuts that were ahead if David Cameron entered 10 Downing Street.

Mr Cameron, now Prime Minister, singled out Northern Ireland, along with the North East of England, as prime targets for shrinking the State to slash public spending.

The Tory leader had already branded the size of the State in Northern Ireland as “unsustainable” and contemptuously compared it to the old communist Eastern bloc.

Asked about this comment by Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman in the final stretches of the election campaign last April, Mr Cameron again made it clear that the public sector in Northern Ireland was too big.

The emergency Budget and the spending review this October will inflict great pain on parts of Britain that are more dependent on the public sector.

This is especially cruel to Northern Ireland where the economy has struggled to grow out of its dependency on the public sector because of the legacy of the violent decades of the Troubles.

The people of Northern Ireland should not be punished for this by the callous agenda of the coalition Government of Tories and Lib Dems.

The hard-working law-abiding majority were not to blame for the years of violence that prevented private sector investment and held Northern Ireland in the grip of the past.

But it is they who will suffer if the pace and scale of the cuts ahead fails to take account of the impact on an economy that still relies on the public sector despite the huge progress of recent years.

Of course everyone wants to grow a thriving private sector in Northern Ireland bringing new higher skilled and higher paid jobs to people of all ages.

But if this rebalancing of the NI economy is not done with great care the consequences will be dire.

The kind of brutal electric shock therapy that is in prospect from the Conservatives and Lib Dems could set off a terrible decline due to the sheer numbers of people directly and indirectly employed by the public sector.

Memories in Northern Ireland are long. And the toll on families from the grim years of unemployment when the Tories were last in power has not been forgotten.

As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I ensured that as the Labour Government worked hard to complete devolution and hand power to local politicians, we also made enormous efforts to help attract business to Northern Ireland.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among those who joined this drive for international investment in Northern Ireland.

Now the great strides forward in building a better and more prosperous Northern Ireland are under threat.

The coalition Government has blithely declared that the private sector will pick up the slack from swingeing public sector cuts.

But where is this great strategy for growth? And what about those regions like Northern Ireland that have struggled to rebalance their economies?

The Budget has already been exposed by being unfair, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable households hardest. The upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review is already predicted to hit regions that rely most heavily on public services hard.

The impending destruction of jobs and resulting pain for families all over the UK will be grim. But for Northern Ireland, emerging after many agonising years from the shadow of the Troubles, it is potentially disastrous.