Jeremy Paxman and David Cameron in conversation
Northern Ireland gets too much state funding, Conservative leader David Cameron has said.
In an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC 1 on Friday, he said NI was a place where government spending must go down.
He said he wanted to focus on promoting the private sector and providing what he called a "bigger, richer society".
Mr Cameron's comments have been backed by his electoral partners in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionists, but attacked by other NI parties.
During the interview, the Tory leader agreed that he had said in some parts of the UK the "state accounts for a bigger share of the economy than it did in the communist countries of the old eastern bloc - it is clearly unsustainable".
Asked by Mr Paxman which part of the UK he was referring to, Mr Cameron said: "I think the first one I would pick out is Northern Ireland.
"In Northern Ireland it is quite clear, almost every party, I think, accepts that the size of the state has got too big, we need a bigger private sector," he said.
When Mr Paxman said that it was "clear" Mr Cameron was planning on cutting public spending in Northern Ireland, the Tory leader replied: "I think you are looking at this in a very strange way if I might say so".
Mr Cameron added that "almost any party leader sitting in this chair" would say that over the next parliament there needed to be a "faster growing private sector" and a "rebalancing of the economy".
DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson said Mr Cameron's comments suggested that Northern Ireland would suffer "disproportionate economic pain" under a Tory government.
"Whilst we recognise the state of UK finances and the need for Northern Ireland to do its bit in the future, nevertheless David Cameron should not be unfairly targeting the Northern Ireland taxpayer," he said.
Sinn Fein's Fermanagh and South Tyrone candidate Michelle Gildernew also condemned Mr Cameron's words.
"Communities right across the north cannot afford this reckless move to be implemented and it must be opposed," she said.
"Citizens must consider their future in the time ahead, and consider what party, and which candidate can best represent the needs of the vulnerable, marginalised and disenfranchised within our society."
Mr Cameron's comments were also attacked by the SDLP, with its South Belfast candidate Alasdair McDonnell accusing the Conservative leader of singling out Northern Ireland for "special treatment".
He said: "The weak, the marginalised, the vulnerable and the low-paid public sector workers who keep our services ticking over are being lined up for sacrifice and sectarian head-counting will not save them."
Mr Cameron has also been criticised by Alliance MLA Anna Lo, who said that he had shown his "true colours".
She added: "People here will be angry that the Tories are virtually labelling us public enemy number one on spending.
"This shows how weak a hand the Ulster Unionists have in their link-up. They have sold their soul to the Tories for next to nothing."
North Antrim independent unionist candidate Lyle Cubitt said Mr Cameron's remarks would not surprise the electorate in Northern Ireland.
"The simple and effective way for him to reduce the 'state' in Northern Ireland is to accept my proposals and remove Stormont and replace it with six local MPs as junior ministers and immediately reduce Government spending by a minimum of £30m per annum," he said.
But UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy came to the defence of Mr Cameron, arguing that his comments were an "honest assessment of the Northern Ireland economy" and that all of the parties in Northern Ireland were agreed upon it.
He added: "In fact, even the executive in its programme for government acknowledges that there is an over-dependence on the public sector in NI and the economy needs to be rebalanced."
Northern Ireland's main public sector union, Nipsa, and Labour's Shaun Woodward have also hit out at Mr Cameron.
NIPSA general secretary Brian Campsfield said: "His faith in the ability of the private sector to provide sufficient jobs to replace thousands of jobs that would be lost to the public sector is sadly misplaced.
"The private sector in Northern Ireland relies heavily on public subsidy and yet its "entrepreneurs" have failed to create sufficient high value employment."
Mr Woodward said the Conservatives "should come clean and tell the truth about their secret plans".
Mr Woodward added: "He (David Cameron) doesn't understand that the Troubles have meant people in Northern Ireland have been through the toughest times.
"While Gordon Brown and Labour have stood by the people of Northern Ireland, David Cameron and the Tories have been secretly planning to decimate the economy just when it's beginning to recover from the global recession."
In terms of economic policy, the Conservatives aim to eliminate "the bulk" of the UK's structural deficit within five years beginning in 2010 with £6bn in cuts.
They plan to have spending cuts in all areas apart from health and foreign aid and cut civil service costs by a third over five years.
Labour aim to have a "targeted" increase in public spending over the next year to "sustain the recovery", before cutting the deficit by more than 50% by 2014 and reducing the structural deficit by at least two-thirds over the next parliament.
They say they would have a 1% cap on public sector pay rises for 2011-12 and 2012-13.
The Liberal Democrats say they would identify and cut £15bn per year of lower priority spending to protect front-line services while reducing structural deficit at least as fast as Labour plans, beginning in 2011.
They say they would set a £400 pay rise cap for all public sector workers.