N. Ireland Politics

Peter Robinson warns of 'prolonged recession'

Expected cuts in public expenditure could be devastating for the economy, the NI first minister has warned.

Peter Robinson said given the scale of the cuts expected to be imposed by the Treasury, ministers will inevitably have to make very difficult decisions.

He said the prospect of 20-25% cuts, amounting to about £2bn, would have a "devastating impact bogging NI down in a recession for a prolonged period".

He urged ministers not to play politics with the decisions they will face.

He said that just as it has united against the threat posed by dissident republicans, the Executive should unite to face the latest economic challenges.

The first minister urged all ministers to resist the temptation to play politics with the cuts, insisting this would be seen by the public as cynical opportunism.

'Challenge'

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Robinson said that "dealing with the Conservative-Liberal Coalition cuts will present the Executive with its biggest policy challenge to date".

"While the Executive is not responsible for the economic downturn or the spending cuts, it is our responsibility to do what we can to tackle the problems they create.

"In these difficult economic conditions, the Executive's main priority must be to keep people in work and put people back to work. If necessary, budgets should be skewed to maximise the effect of public expenditure in keeping the economy moving forward," he said.

Responding to Mr Robinson's comments, Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey said that "rather than talk Northern Ireland down, however, the Executive's focus should be on doing all we can to revitalise our regional economy".

At the end of June, Chancellor George Osborne's first budget detailed a package of tax increases and spending cuts which aims to cut the UK's £155bn deficit.

The Northern Ireland Executive was told in May it must save an extra £128m on top of £393m of other savings already planned for this year.

The Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland estimates that cuts of at least £1.2bn - £1.5bn will have to be made on top of those savings but some analysts believe this could increase to £2bn.

Meanwhile, Mr Robinson has said he intends to lead the party into the next assembly election and remain as first minister.

In an interview with BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport, he also said his wife Iris was doing well.

Mr Robinson said: "I'm not going to go into the personal issues.

"Obviously the process of treatment is a longer term issue but we're in good form and obviously I want to deal with the problems that are facing the public and I don't want us to be concentrating on the problems that I face."

Mrs Robinson has been receiving treatment in a London clinic after retiring from active politics on health grounds.

The former MP was the subject of a BBC Spotlight investigation into her personal and financial relationship with a young businessman.