David Cameron arrived in Belfast yesterday with a message of support for Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration coupled with a warning that it will not be spared public spending cuts.
He pledged that, despite its particularly high levels of expenditure, Northern Ireland would not be singled out for special treatment. But he insisted that all parts of the UK had to help bear the economic burden.
Despite their differences, local parties are united in seeking to protect the block grant which Belfast receives from London each year. But the Prime Minister was adamant yesterday that Northern Ireland would not escape. He signalled that local politicians would have a large measure of discretion on how and when cuts were implemented, but not on how deep they would be.
Mr Cameron said: "The devolved areas, if they want, are able to delay these things until next year – that is important. But we're all are in this together; we all have to deal with the deficit together. The Government I lead wants to deal with the deficit and get our finances under control."
Mr Cameron has promised to review the proposal that Northern Ireland might have a lower rate of corporation tax.
Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson, who met Mr Cameron along with his deputy, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, said there would be serious threats to frontline services if cuts were imposed immediately. Mr Robinson added: "We lag behind the UK in terms of recovery and the impact may be even greater."
The Prime Minister was fulfilling a campaign promise to return to Belfast, having travelled there during the general election campaign in support of his allies, the Ulster Unionist Party. He had hoped to return with an element of triumph, but his ambitions for support in Northern Ireland were not realised.
Jointly styling themselves the "New Force", the UUP and the Conservatives ran on a ticket of breaking ancient tribal moulds and paving the way for a modernisation of sectarian politics.
In the event, all of its candidates lost as voters showed themselves unconvinced by or indifferent to the idea of new beginnings. The UUP lost both support and its leader, Sir Reg Empey, who is to step down.
The disillusioned party will go back to the drawing board, electing a new leader and pondering whether to maintain its Tory link or to chart a different course. Some UUP members favour maintaining the Conservative connection, although the party has to face the fact that its share of the vote dropped.
Mr Cameron had hoped he would have strong allies in Belfast, in line with his vision of closer relationships among different parts of the UK. Instead he faces doing business primarily with the familiar big battalions. This was demonstrated yesterday when he held a joint meeting with Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.
By posing for photographs alongside Mr McGuinness, Mr Cameron was seen as sending the message that he can work with republicans.
The Prime Minister shows no sign of wishing to make any significant changes to the arrangements based at the Stormont Assembly. The system received a striking endorsement in the recent election, when more than 95 per cent of voters opted for candidates who support it.
The coalition document drawn up by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also stresses support for the Stormont system, saying the Government will "stand firmly behind the agreements negotiated and the institutions they establish".Reuse content