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North Antrim MLA and Sinn Féin Economy Spokesperson, Daithí McKay, has said that growth of the economy in the north will continue to be 'sluggish' whilst the British Government maintains decision making over corporation tax, fuel duty and borrowing powers. He was speaking after the Finance Minister made a statement to the Assembly on the impact of the British Government's Autumn statement.

Speaking today Mr McKay said:

"Firstly I think it is important to welcome the exemption that the north will have from the Carbon Price Floor (Tax) as this will have made energy generators in the north uncompetitive in the all-Island energy market in which we operate.

"However this is again an example where we have to lobby and argue for changes in taxation policy rather than set this policy for ourselves. The rate of Corporation Tax has been reduced to 21% by George Osbourne but again this does not suit the north and the economic realities of this island.

"Fuel duty is yet another example where London Treasury policy puts business at a disadvantage here in the north where we have different economic conditions. We need to negotiate for the transfer of these powers and take these decisions for ourselves as it clearly makes economic sense when one puts the proper case forward."

Commenting on projected figures of growth he added:

"George Osbourne's austerity policies have clearly failed and by cutting funding so deeply clearly runs the risk of bringing the wheels of the economy to a halt.

"With the British Government's overhaul of welfare that will hit thousands of working families being implemented here there is a clear disregard for the macroeconomic needs of the north and therefore a clear need for the Assembly and Executive to tailor economic policies for ourselves."

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Following this afternoons adjourned negotiations between Union Leaders and Government on an extended Croke Park deal Sinn Féin Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald TD has called on Government and Union Leaders to once and for all deal with the elephant in the room – excessive pay and pensions across the top of the civil and public sector.

The Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Public Expenditure and Reform said:

“These negotiations offer a real opportunity for Government and Union Leaders to once and for all tackle excessive pay at the top of the civil and public sector. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer’s hard earned cash could be saved each year by capping the runaway pay and pensions of senior managers and office holders.

“It is mindboggling that every time the issue of high pay is raised Minister Howlin and his Labour cabinet colleagues doggedly defend the massive salaries paid out across the top of the public sector.

“Brendan Howlin knows that the salaries he pays out to senior management, including the HSE, Local Authorities and State Agencies are far in excess of what is paid to their European counterparts. Labour Ministers need to step outside their bubble of self-interest and instead make decisions on public sector pay and pensions that are equitable and in the public interest.

“In equal measure Union Leaders need to put high pay and pension’s front and centre of the negotiations. It is simply not good enough to keep heaping the pain on new entrants, low and middle income earners. These negotiations are an opportunity for the trade union movement to tackle pay inequity across the public sector. Union Leaders cannot continue to defend high rollers.” ENDS

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Sinn Féin Senator David Cullinane is to hold consultation meetings across the Southeast on behalf of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation as part of drafting a Jobs Action Plan for the region.
The process will involve meeting dozens of groups including business leaders, trade unions, community groups, educational providers, the unemployed and sectoral interest groups. Senator Cullinane will present a draft Jobs Action Plan for the Southeast to the committee in June that will recommend clear and realistic interventions and actions which need to be made to help create jobs in the region.

Speaking today Senator Cullinane said:
“The percentage on the live register for the Southeast is 19.7%, nearly 25% above the average for the state, which is 14.8%. In Waterford alone some 15,000 people are unemployed. We need to properly examine why Waterford and the Southeast is underperforming. We need to look at legacy issues and problems within the region. We need to look to the Enterprise Agencies and challenge them on their lack of investment in the region. Crucially we need to identify what special and unique interventions need to be made in the region.

“In the next few months I will be travelling across the region meeting with city and county managers, the Southeast Regional Authority, city & county Enterprise Boards, Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, trade unions, trades councils, chambers of commerce, business organisations, local development and Leader companies, community groups, farming and fishing groups, the unemployed, elected representatives, educational providers, training and recruitment agencies and tourist bodies.

“It will be challenging but hopefully productive. The objective is to develop a Jobs Action Plan for the Southeast which is solution oriented and provides credible, realistic and deliverable proposals on how to create jobs and overcome challenges in the region.”
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Sinn Féin Dublin City Councillors are to table an emergency motion at tomorrow's (Monday 14 January) monthly meeting of the City Council in opposition to the Water Services Bill which will see water meters and charges imposed on every home.

Councillor Mícheál Mac Donncha said:

“The publication on 11 January of the Water Services Bill 2013 was a hugely significant step towards the removal of water services from democratic accountability as a function of local government and, ultimately, from public control through the process of privatisation.

“We are asking all members of the City Council to deplore the proposed draconian powers designed to impose water meters on all homes and to extract a further payment from already hard-pressed citizens and families.

“We are asking the Council to call on the Government not to proceed with the Water Services Bill 2013 and to retain water services as a function of local government. They should also undertake comprehensive measures to address the need for water conservation and to address the outstanding issue of local government funding on the basis of fair taxation and ability to pay.”

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Commenting today on an RTÉ interview with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said:

“An Taoiseach had nothing new to say which would give hope to those citizens suffering deep hardship and distress from his government’s brutal austerity policies.

“Unemployment is rife, emigration is at record levels while his government inflicts vicious cuts and inequitable taxes on those who can least afford them.

“Mr Kenny tells citizens, patronizingly, that the issue of the promissory note is ‘very complex and very technical’.

“In reality it couldn’t be more straightforward — this government needs to stand up for Irish citizens and stop using public money to prop up banks and bankers. It needs to put the interests of Ireland first in any negotiations at European level.

“The Taoiseach also took the opportunity once again, to express his full support for his embattled Health Minister James Reilly.

“Minister Reilly however has zero credibility following his scandalous decisions in relation to Primary Health Care centres.

"He has now made clear through the HSE Service Plan 2013, that he is willing to further slash our public health services. Minister Reilly should go.

“I welcome the fact that An Taoiseach expressed the Government’s determination that those elements fomenting violence on the streets of Belfast will not be allowed to derail the peace process or to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. That should be a major focus for all political representatives in the immediate period ahead.”

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Writing in a blog which he posted today on the flags issue the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams TD calls for an “all party, cross community response to the flags protests and the violence which has accompanied them”.

In his ‘Leargas’ blog on the Belfast Media group website the Sinn Féin leader points out that:

“The vast majority of the protests taking place around the flag issue are illegal. Most are being organised by the BNP, the UVF and criminal elements, some of whom are well known drug pushers. They are seeking to exploit this situation for their own ends.

There is an expectation across the community that those who are organising these protests will be subjected to due process and that the protests will be policed in a fair way.

As political leaders on this island reflect on the events of recent weeks it is important to understand that the Good Friday Agreement must not be taken for granted. It requires constant attention and work. There are important parts of the Agreement still not implemented – for example a Bill of Rights and legacy issues. These matters must be addressed.

After the Massereene attack in 2009 in which two British soldiers were killed Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson brought together all of the political leaders, church and civic  leaders to map out a way forward and to ensure that the tiny minority of voices who want to undermine the progress that has been made do not succeed. That approach is needed again. The Unionist Forum established by the DUP and UUP may have a role to play but it is limited.

Stability and inclusivity and progress are not in the gift of one section of people. Everyone has to be involved. We need an all-party, cross community response to the flag protests and the violence which has accompanied them. It also needs to address all of the other outstanding issues.

This will be a huge challenge.

Republicans do not underestimate the problems involved and in particular the difficulties facing unionism. But there can be no going back.

The tiny minorities who want to cling to the past must be rejected. Sectarianism must be tackled and ended.

The promise of the Good Friday Agreement for a new society in which all citizens are respected, and where fairness and justice and equality are the guiding principles, has to be advanced.”

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Speaking in Cork this morning where she was addressing a meeting of Sinn Féin women activists from across Munster, Deputy Leader of the party Mary Lou McDonald said that the introduction of water charges is unfair, unjust and should be resisted.

Deputy McDonald was responding to the publication of the legislation to impose the charges which was released yesterday.

She said:

“Hard-pressed homeowners are already crippled by the economic mismanagement of this and the last government. They are dealing with unemployment, cuts to public services and the increased financial burden that goes along with the many new taxes and charges that have been imposed the latest of which being these proposed water charges.

“Legislation published yesterday will now set in train the establishment of Irish Water as a subsidiary of An Bord Gáis Eireann, a company which this government have said they intend to sell off. This new company will be given power to install water meters and charge families for the water they use. This charge means the public will be paying three times for the water they drink. Firstly in their general taxes, secondly through this new charge and finally they will pay through the National Pension Reserve Fund which is being used to fund the installation of water meters.

“This government is totally out of touch with the reality facing citizens every day and it is nothing short of outrageous to expect people to pay for a basic human need such as water.

“These charges are unfair, unjust and should be resisted by all parties in the Dáil.”

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Sinn Féin councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has called on Belfast Chamber of Commerce President Joe Jordan to "stop politicking" and unite with political and business leaders to build the city of Belfast.

Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said:

"Sadly, while others have been working full-out to end the protests and back our businesses and communities, Joe Jordan has been more interested in engaging in politicking.

"I would appeal to him to call for the protests to end and condemn the actions of the tiny minority who are disrupting business in Belfast with these protests. 

"Belfast City Council is committed to helping our businesses and will not be deterred from that vital work by this type of politicking." 

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The Sinn Féin spokesperson on the Environment, Community and Local Government, Brian Stanley TD, has said that Sinn Féin will do all its power to defeat the government’s Water Services Bill which was published today.

Deputy Stanley said:

“The publication of the bill today confirms the intention of this government to charge households for their water from 1 January 2014.

“The bill is fundamentally flawed and draconian in its content. It establishes Irish Water as a subsidiary of An Bord Gáis Eireann, a company which this government said they intend to sell off. This new company will be given power to install water meters and charge families for the water they use. This charge means the public will be paying three times for the water they drink. Firstly in their general taxes, secondly through this new charge and finally they will pay through the National Pension Reserve Fund which is being used to fund the installation of water meters.

“The legislation allows Irish Water to access information on householders from sources including the Revenue Commissioners, Department of Social Protection, local authorities and the Private Residential Tenancies Board. This is clearly in breach of privacy and civil liberties. It also gives powers to Irish Water allowing it to be exempt from seeking planning permission to lay water pipes. But most worryingly it gives it 'power to interrupt water supply'.

“The installation of water meters will prove to be costly and totally inefficient. Experts including the Irish Academy of Engineers and the Local Authority Professional Officers have given estimates of up to €1.2 billion to cover the cost of the installation. Meanwhile in England, private companies are still attempting to install water meters twenty years after water charges were first introduced.

“This bill has nothing to do with water conservation and everything to do with taking more power away from local authorities, centralising it and preparing for the full privatisation of our water service.

“Sinn Féin has actively campaigned against water charges and we will be redoubling our efforts now that this bill has been published. The government can expect strong resistance from hard-pressed householders right across this state and Sinn Féin will be standing shoulder to shoulder with them.”

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Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Michael Colreavy TD has welcomed the launch of a public consultation by the EPA on the proposed terms of reference to address the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing “fracking”.

Speaking on the issue Deputy Colreavy said:

“Any report carried out by the EPA into the impact that fracking could have on the environment must address the concerns of local residents. I welcome the public consultation which will allow the residents of the Lough Allen Basin voice their concerns about the impact that fracking could have on their homes and community.

“International evidence has shown that fracking is a dangerous method of extracting shale gas. The use of fracking has been linked to small earthquakes in Britain. The Irish government must consider the serious risk that fracking poses before making a decision on awarding an exploratory licence. It is imperative that they gather as much information as possible about the practice of fracking.

“The Lough Allen Basin is an area of natural beauty and is also a hive of agricultural activity and tourism. Any attempts to introduce fracking into the area could seriously damage not only the safety, but also the livelihoods of those living in the area.

“Sinn Féin has continuously called for a ban on fracking in Ireland and will make its opinions known as part of the public consultation.”

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Sinn Féin Deputy Leader and spokesperson on public expenditure Mary Lou McDonald has said that HSE plans to withdraw medical cards from some 40,000 people is “yet another vicious attack on those on low incomes.”

Deputy McDonald said:

“When the budget was introduced before Christmas it was indicated that €1.1 billion of a cut would be made. At that time we remarked at the fact that James Reilly had not set out exactly where those cuts would fall. So with the Service Plan introduced yesterday we begin to get a glimpse of how things will shape up.

“Minister James Reilly has signed off on a plan that will deprive some 40,000 people of medical cards in 2013 and many more thereafter as the income criteria for receiving a medical card are changed.

“Minister Reilly’s so-called ‘service plan’ is merely a device for slashing essential services and again it is the least well off who will feel the most pain.

“Minister Reilly’s latest cruel cut is a further attack on those citizens on low incomes. It is the latest in a disgraceful litany of attacks such as cuts to child benefit, to the carers allowance and the imposition of an inequitable family home tax.

“Minister Reilly and this Government are completely out of touch with the reality for ordinary people right across this country as they plough ahead with a disastrous austerity agenda.

“It is time they took stock of the real social harm resulting from their policies. They could make a start by immediately reversing this latest cut.”

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Sinn Féin councillor Deirdre Hargey has welcomed today’s decision by Belfast City Council to recommend a zero per cent increase in the rates for the coming year — despite unionist attempts to push through "a cuts programme”.

The Sinn Féin councillor who is chair of the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee said:

“This is the first time in living memory that we have managed to have a zero increase in the striking of the rate and is testament to prudent planning and crucial efficiency savings by our Council management and staff.

“This is the right balance to ensure we can give support to our businesses while continuing to invest in our ambitious £150m investment package for Belfast.

“The alternative by unionists to introduce a new 'cuts programme' and abandon investment projects would result in job losses, dent confidence in our city and deepen the economic crisis. Putting hundreds of Council workers on the dole is the last thing we should be doing if we want to help our city through this recession.

“Unionists proposed to committee a 'cuts programme' which would be disastrous for Belfast. This is a time to invest in the future not to slash and burn.

“Fortunately their proposals were rejected by the other parties to ensure Belfast will get the Innovation Centre at Springvale, the Convention Centre at the Waterfront Hall, the Digital Hub at Crumlin Road, and enhanced investment in our parks, leisure facilities and small business support.”

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Sinn Féin MLA Jennifer McCann said she is disappointed by the decision on the John Lewis store at Sprucefield but said all is not lost yet.

The West Belfast MLA said:

“While I am disappointed at this decision it is not the end of the matter and there is still a possibility that the store could get the go ahead at the site.

“Sinn Féin has lobbied for several years for John Lewis to come to Sprucefield. It would create much-needed employment opportunities to an area like Colin that has a high level of social and economic need.

“Sinn Féin will continue to push for the development to take place at Sprucefield despite this set back.”

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Sinn Féin Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald TD has this morning called on the Tánaiste to clarify Labour’s position on equal pay for equal work.

Deputy McDonald said:

“During an interview on Morning Ireland Eamon Gilmore appeared to concede that Labour is no longer committed to the principle of equal pay for equal work.

“When quizzed about the Government’s decision to slash graduate nurse and midwives’ pay by 20% the Tánaiste robustly defended his party’s decision to forgo the principle of equal pay for equal work, suggesting this catchment of future HSE staff were lucky to get jobs in the first place.

“Pay inequity is rife throughout the public sector. Those at the top of the service continue to be paid substantially more than European counterparts, including hospital consultants and senior administrators.

“If the HSE or any other government department or agency are serious about reducing pay and pension expenditure, significant savings can be found by addressing excessive pay at the top. Instead the Tánaiste has chosen to protect high rollers and target those at the very bottom of the public sector pay grades.

“To be blunt it is incomprehensible that a Labour party leader would not only deepen pay inequity in the public sector, but would also robustly defend such a decision.

“Eamon Gilmore needs to publicly clarify the Labour’s party’s policy position on equal pay for equal work. Trade union leaders must also make this demand of the Labour leadership.”

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Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Environment, Community & Local Government, Brian Stanley TD, is scathing in his response to the budget cut by the government to the Senior Alert Scheme, which has been reduced by over 50%.

Stanley said “This sneaky cut is one of the most callous, mean and petty by this government so far. This scheme provides funding to local community groups to purchase panic alarms for vulnerable or disabled elderly people to alert neighbours, fire, gardaí or ambulance services during an emergency.

“The provision of this equipment is essential given the recent increase in burglaries and brutal attacks on elderly citizens around the country. I have been involved in one of these schemes and I have seen at first hand the enormous benefits of it. Improving home security for elderly persons living alone and having an alarm to alert neighbours gives huge peace of mind to some of the most vulnerable members of the community. This is even more vital now with the policing cutbacks and the closure of rural Garda stations. Last week a 96- year-old woman in Donegal used one of these alarms to alert a neighbour following an aggravated burglary.

“Local Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch Schemes are doing excellent work on a voluntary basis to enhance community safety. For this overpaid government to slash this important grant by 55% to save a miserly €1 million is a disgrace and they seem to be hell bent on attacking the most vulnerable. It is not overstating the case to say that this cut could be a matter of life or death for some elderly person in future.”

In conclusion Stanley said “As an opposition Spokesperson on Environment, Community & Local Government I intend pursuing Minister Hogan and the government on this and to do everything possible to have this important funding restored.” ENDS

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Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd said that the Unionist forum that met today will not solve the problem of mutual respect for people’s national identity and culture.

The Upper Bann MLA said:

“Unionists talking to themselves will not solve the problem of mutual respect for people’s national identity and culture.

“That can only come when representatives from the whole community sit down together. There needs to be an open discussion on how people’s Irishness and Britishness can be respected and valued.

“Equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect needs to be at the core of any move forward on identity and symbols.

“Unionism needs to face the reality that the North has changed and will continue to change. Any attempts to hark back to a one-sided past will only sow more confusion among unionists and loyalists.”

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Sinn Fein Health spokesperson Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has described the HSE Service Plan 2013, approved today by Health Minister James Reilly, as a plan for slashing our public health services.

Describing the cutting of 40,000 medical cards as an “attack on people on low incomes”, Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

“This plan implements the savage cuts to public health services imposed by the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition in Budget 2013.

“It is not a service plan – it is a plan for slashing services.

“Of the total of €721 million in cuts in this plan a massive €323 million is cut from primary care. This makes a mockery of the government’s so-called reform programme with primary care at its centre.

“Minister Reilly has signed off on a plan that will deprive some 40,000 people of medical cards in 2013 and many more thereafter as the income criteria for receiving a medical card are changed. This is a further attack on people on low incomes.

“It is scandalous that the plan imposes a cut to disability services (1.2%) which is four times what was expected by the sector (.3%). This will severely affect disability services that are already reeling from cuts in previous years.

“The plan also implements the increase in the medical card prescription charges and the reduction in the monthly subsidy for medicines under the Drugs Payment Scheme.

“This plan will deepen the staffing crisis in our public health services. The plan itself admits that given the level of staff reductions in recent years and 4,000 more staff due to be cut this year, planning for services is ‘particularly difficult in 2013’. This is an understatement and the staff crisis will be compounded by the Government/HSE decision to attempt to introduce a cheap labour scheme for nurses which has already been rejected by the nursing unions.”

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Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson Jonathan O’Brien, TD, has said the failure of Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) to process outstanding third level grant applications is resulting in significant hardship for students.

He was responding to reports that students who had yet to receive their grants have had to survive on food parcels in order to remain in college.

Describing the situation “as completely unacceptable”, the Cork North Central TD said his office was being inundated with complaints from students who are still waiting to have their grant applications processed and paid.

He continued: “Nearly two weeks into the new year, the SUSI debacle has yet to be resolved and thousands of students are suffering real hardship as a result of a system that has failed utterly.

“It is all very well that today we have the Education Minister Ruairí Quinn reminding students an additional €3 million has been allocated to the Student Assistance Fund but more importantly, he needs to ensure adequate resources are provided to ensure the remaining backlog in third level grant payments are made immediately.

“It is scandalous that students are being forced to live on food parcels as a result of being denied payment of their maintenance grants through an online awarding body that was supposed to greatly improve what existed previously.

“From the start SUSI was under-funded and poorly resourced and as a consequence thousands of students have been living without a grant for over four months.

“Minister Quinn has serious questions to answer about this unmitigated disaster and I will be attempting to have this matter debated when the Dáil returns from recess next week.”

ENDS

Note for Editors:

Deputy O’Brien has submitted the following for Topical Issues’ Debate:

To debate the on-going hardship being experienced by students arising from the failure of Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) to process outstanding third level grant applications.

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Sinn Féin Justice and Equality Spokesperson, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn has expressed outrage at news that the government has halved the budget for personal security alarms provided to the elderly to enable them to live independently.

The vital importance of the alarms was proven once again in recent days following the robbery and attack on 96 year old Margaret Lilly in Buncrana, Co. Donegal, only 100 yards from Deputy Mac Lochlainn's home. It is believed that Ms Lilly may not have survived the attack had it not been for the fact she activated her personal alarm.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn said:

“This is a shocking and mean spirited decision by the government. It is an attack on some of our most vulnerable citizens and must be reversed immediately.

“This government will close 143 Garda stations. They have slashed Garda numbers and reduced the number of Garda vehicles. And now they halve the budget for personal security alarms for the elderly.

“These alarms give security assurance to our senior citizens and they also allow them to live independently, safe in the knowledge that support in the event if an emergency is only the press of a button away.

“The Seniors Alert Scheme has operated successfully over recent years and that is why all of the organisations who represent the elderly have condemned this decision.

“The shocking attack on my 96 year old neighbour, Margaret Lilly, has demonstrated the life-saving importance of these alarms and this scheme. The government needs to increase the budget not halve it.”

ENDS

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Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Deirdre Hargey said the joint statement by unionist councillors regarding the lowering of rates was a disgrace and an abdication of their responsibilities.

The South Belfast councillor said:

“Once again unionist councillors have used the intemperate language of ‘tearing’ down a flag and also washed their hands of all responsibility to do with the flag protests. That is a disgrace and an abdication of their responsibilities.

“The blame for traders poor return at Christmas lies at the feet of the protestors and those who stoked up tension around the democratic decision taken by the council.

“Sinn Féin have proposed a zero rise in rates which along with inflation actually means a cut in rates, would actually be the first such move in 20 years by the council.

“Unionists now advocating a setting of the rates at a minus need to explain to people where the cuts are going to come from to pay for this.

“This would affect the investment package announced by the council and would have a knock on affect on creating new jobs. Services would also be affected

“What services do the unionist councillors calling for this want to see cut; the investment package for those areas suffering from deprivation and the jobs that will come from this, community grants, Parks & Leisure, tackling flooding etc?

“ Sinn Féin would advise traders against withholding their rates as has been reported. What is needed now is for the ending of all protests and Belfast’s positive image to come to the fore.

“Business leaders can help by adding their voice for an end to these futile protests that have damaged the image and trading within the city.”

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