N.Ireland fears public sector axe after election

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Belfast nurse Jenny Inglis is thinking long and hard about who to vote for in Britain's looming general election, knowing that her job could be on the line after polling day.

Puffing at a cigarette outside the city's main hospital, the 37-year-old said she was "very concerned" knowing that whichever party wins the May 6 poll, the large public sector here faces cutbacks after Britain's record recession.

Britain's main opposition Conservatives -- currently leading in the polls -- have targeted Northern Ireland as the area, along with England's northeast region, where key government savings can be made to reduce massive state debt.

The ruling Labour Party and the fast-emerging Liberal Democrats have also spoken of the need to slash government spending, although not as quickly as the Tories would like.

"We're worried about losing our jobs. It does make you wonder who to vote for," Inglis told AFP, adding that she may decide to back Northern Ireland's cross-community Alliance party on Thursday.

"I think it's important to use your vote this year. I've just not decided yet."

At nearby Queen's University, business management student Adam Long, 21, is worried for his parents, who are both teachers.

"It's bad with both my parents working in the public sector but it's just something I think we're going to have to go through," he said.

One-third of Northern Ireland's employees work in the province's public sector, whose size has grown markedly since Britain's ruling Labour Party swept to power in 1997.

Brian Campfield, leader of Northern Ireland's largest trade union, NIPSA, said thousands of public sector jobs were at risk here after the election.

"We're expecting some severe cuts and we'll be actively opposing them, trying to raise as much political support in order to protect public services," he said.

"There's going to be millions upon millions of pounds lost in Northern Ireland's public expenditure... and that's going to result in thousands of jobs being lost," Campfield predicted.

Big cuts are being targeted in Northern Ireland as Britain borrowed a record 152.8 billion pounds in the 12 months to March.

That was 65.9 billion pounds higher than in the same period of 2008/09, as a record British recession slammed the country's tax revenues, recent official data showed.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Conservative Party leader David Cameron described the level of public spending in parts of Britain as "unsustainable". Asked where the axe would fall, he replied: "The first one I think I would pick out is Northern Ireland."

He added: "In Northern Ireland, it's quite clear -- almost every party I think now accepts this -- that the size of the state has got too big."

For this election, the Conservatives have joined with their traditional Northern Ireland allies, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), on a joint ticket.

But the province's biggest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, has seized on Cameron's remarks in a bid to ward off the threat of its main Protestant rival the UUP.

"Cameron's cuts comments prove that the so-called special relationship between the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives offers nothing but pain," said Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson.

"The Ulster Unionists will take the Tories' donation for their election campaign and if elected will follow their paymasters through the lobbies to back massive cuts in Northern Ireland."

But health worker Catherine Arkinson, 31, said she had no faith in any of the parties fighting for votes across the province.

"So far we haven't seen any politician come out and said they would protect health spending.

"They don't genuinely understand the need for the services as keenly as the people on the ground -- the members of the public. So in terms of who you would vote for, I don't think there's much difference between any of them," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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