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As Sammy Wilson steps down from the Assembly, he says he fears for its survival

By David Young

Published 04/08/2015

Sammy Wilson is quitting Stormont, but will continue to be MP for East Antrim
Sammy Wilson is quitting Stormont, but will continue to be MP for East Antrim

Former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has bid a fond farewell to Stormont - although he believes it will be "almost impossible" for it to survive unless the current row over welfare reforms is resolved.

The DUP veteran will continue to serve as the MP for East Antrim, which he has represented at Westminster since 2005.

With the parties deadlocked over rolling out UK Government changes to the benefits system, Mr Wilson believes that as a DUP MP, he will still wield much influence over decisions in Northern Ireland if Direct Rule is re-introduced.

The impasse, due to a Sinn Fein/SDLP veto on welfare, has contributed to a black hole in the Executive's budget running into hundreds of millions of pounds.

"Having served as Finance Minister for four years it is deeply disappointing that I leave the Assembly at a time of such uncertainty, caused because of the economic illiteracy of both Sinn Fein and the SDLP," he said.

"Their refusal to live up to the commitments in the Stormont House Agreement casts a shadow over the Assembly and is resulting in cuts to vital public services."

Mr Wilson said he remains committed to devolution, but has doubts over its sustainability.

"The future of the Assembly is not guaranteed," he said. "If Direct Rule was reimposed, the centre for all political discussions about what happened in Northern Ireland would go back to Westminster. So the role of Westminster over the next couple of years could be quite significant."

Asked if the current Stormont Assembly experiment could be coming to an end, Mr Wilson said: "Yes, unless people start to see sense and recognise that there is no pot of gold which Westminster is prepared to hand out to Northern Ireland, that we have to live with the hand we've been given, and take responsible decisions.

"The Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have told me that they would not allow the kind of 'fiscal anarchy' that we have at the minute in the Assembly to go on, or they will have to intervene.

"They do expect that welfare reform changes will have to be made, or there will be severe financial penalties for Northern Ireland - and that makes the sustainability of the Assembly almost impossible. I hope this scenario doesn't occur, but if it does, it will make the role of Westminster MPs even more significant."

DUP leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA, said: "Sammy has made a huge contribution to the Northern Ireland Assembly, as a constituency representative as well as both a committee chair and minister. He will continue to serve the people of East Antrim as their Member of Parliament. His role in Parliament will be particularly vital given the very slim majority enjoyed by the current government and the influence this provides for the DUP."

What now?

Sammy Wilson's departure from the Stormont Assembly scene leaves the East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell as the only remaining 'double jobber' - acting as both a MP and MLA.

Mr Wilson's successor as East Antrim MLA will be named by the DUP in time for the Assembly's return from the summer break.

Party sources said that the decision as to who would succeed Mr Wilson was an internal party matter, and that expressions of interest were currently being sought.

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