Northern Ireland is ‘begging bowl corner' of the UK, says Doug Beattie
Northern Ireland must reverse its status as the “begging bowl corner” of the UK and become fiscally responsible, Doug Beattie said.
In an address to business leaders, the UUP leader said Stormont parties have collectively failed to demonstrate their ability to manage the north's finances.
Mr Beattie was addressing a pre-election event, hosted by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, titled Five Leaders; Five Days.
He was asked whether his party would support Stormont taking on more revenue-raising powers to reduce its dependency on billions of pounds of Treasury subvention each year.
Mr Beattie said the executive has to first prove it is capable of responsibly managing its finances before it takes further steps to generate more of its own income.
“Right now, Northern Ireland is not fiscally responsible,” he told the event at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
“None of us are fiscally responsible. We are failing on that particular thing.
“We must get ourselves on a proper fiscal footing. We need to become fiscally responsible.”
He added: “We’ve got to stop being the begging bowl corner of the United Kingdom. We need to be wealth generators.
“We need to generate wealth because that generation of the wealth can then be spread out between the whole of society to make this a truly working part of this United Kingdom.
“So we are absolutely committed to doing that. But, right now, we’re just not up to it. We’re just simply not up to it. That’s not a slur on either the present finance minister (Conor Murphy) or any other finance minister. It’s a collective.”
Mr Beattie said the “whole executive are not up for it”, adding: “And we’re part of the executive – we have to take the blame the same as absolutely everybody else.
“But, as an executive, we are not fiscally responsible enough to do this.”
During a question and answer session, Mr Beattie was also pressed on his party’s position on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He was asked why the UUP does not do more to promote the dual-market access the region enjoys under the terms of the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Mr Beattie said the protocol delivers either “feast or famine” as it benefits those who can sell into both the UK internal market and the EU single market, but harms importers trying to bring in goods from Britain.
He said the problems with the protocol are much more fundamental than travellers through Belfast’s airports being unable to buy “200 fags and a bottle of vodka” in duty-free ahead of flights to Europe.
But he insisted the way to resolve those issues is through considered dialogue, as he accused rivals of relying on empty slogans.
Mr Beattie has faced criticism from other unionist parties for his decision to withdraw the UUP from attending contentious loyalist rallies against the protocol.
The party leader, whose office in Portadown was vandalised after he announced the move on Sunday, has claimed the demonstrations are being used to raise tensions within the community ahead of the election.
“Nobody needs to get angry over this. Nobody needs to get angry because we can play a positive role in engaging with people in a sensible, clear manner so they understand the problems that we face,” he said.
“What we’ve got now, with an election coming up, is a protocol slogan with nothing – a protocol slogan to whip up a vote… Bin the protocol, full stop. End the protocol, full stop. Get rid of the protocol, full stop.
“There’s nothing after the full stop. It’s just somebody standing there to get applause, to get a clap, to get a cheer by saying, ‘End, bin, get rid off’, but they don’t give a way how and what we’re going to do.
“There has to be something. So we do engage and we engage positively, but there are issues and we have to deal with those issues, whether we like it or not.”
During the event, Mr Beattie again refused to confirm whether his party would, in principle, serve as deputy first minister in an administration with a Sinn Féin first minister.
Both the UUP and DUP have repeatedly failed to confirm whether they would take the post of deputy first minister if Sinn Féin, as opinion polls indicate, emerge as the largest party after May’s election and are entitled to the first minister’s job.
Mr Beattie insisted the UUP intends to win the election and would only determine its approach to serving in an Executive after talks on what a potential programme for government might look like.