Labour and the Tories clashed over Northern Ireland policy on Sunday with a senior Labour minister warning that a David Cameron government would pose “a substantial risk to the peace process”.

Abandoning the convention that Northern Ireland is not exploited for party political advantage, Shaun Woodward, Northern Ireland secretary, told Sky News there was a substantial risk to the peace process because planned Tory cuts to public spending could damage community policing.

A Conservative spokesman dismissed the comments as “ridiculous scaremongering” and “a sign of Labour’s increasing desperation”. He added it was “grossly irresponsible to try to play politics with Northern Ireland”.

On an earlier occasion, Mr Woodward seized on comments by Mr Cameron that Northern Ireland’s state sector had “got too big”. Mr Woodward said this showed the Tory leader “just doesn’t care about the future of Northern Ireland”.

Many locals see Labour criticism as opportunistic and point out that successive Labour secretaries of state have themselves said Northern Ireland’s share of public spending is unsustainable and the province needs to pay its way.

Northern Ireland receives about €8bn (£7bn) in budget transfers from London to support essential services, more per head than any other region. This excludes social security and other benefits which are directly paid by the Treasury.

All Northern Ireland parties accept public spending’s share of the economy, about 70 per cent, has to come down. But Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionists, said cuts must be carried out “fairly and evenly across the UK”.

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