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Cameron confident over welfare deal

Published 07/04/2015

Prime Minister David Cameron is confident the NI welfare deal can get back on track
Prime Minister David Cameron is confident the NI welfare deal can get back on track

David Cameron has said he is confident that Northern Ireland can get its stalled welfare deal back on the road.

The Prime Minister said the public wanted their leaders to come together and resolve the fall out over the Stormont House Agreement, which was signed just before Christmas between the five main parties and facilitated by the British and Irish governments.

It envisages changes including the devolution of powers to set corporation tax from London to Belfast and special mechanisms to investigate killings during the 30-year conflict.

Sinn Fein withdrew support for welfare reform at the eleventh hour earlier this year, claiming power-sharing partners the DUP had shown bad faith and alleging the legislation would hurt the most vulnerable.

The Northern Ireland Office has said the Agreement must be implemented in its entirety. Mr Cameron said it had not unravelled.

He added: "It is stalled but I am confident that we will get the show back on the road.

"It was a very long and hard negotiation and full credit to (Northern Ireland Secretary) Theresa Villiers for the amazing work she did as part of that."

The latest impasse in the long-delayed process of implementing welfare reforms centres on the scope of Stormont-funded mitigation schemes designed to support those worst hit by the changes to the benefits system.

The dispute flared when Sinn Fein withdrew support for welfare legislation over concerns that the measures were not extensive enough.

Implementing the Government's changes to the benefits system is a key plank of December's wide-ranging Stormont House Agreement.

Without finally passing the repeatedly stalled legislation, the whole deal would likely implode.

Mr Cameron said: "We agreed unparallelled financial support, borrowing powers, more economic powers, the devolution of corporation tax, a whole series of things.

"Those are the things we agreed to do, we are putting in place.

"I am confident that the deal will come back together, but obviously it is stalled for the time being while this welfare issue is resolved.

"I hope that it is going to be resolved, but I know that everyone wants to achieve the same thing here - which is the full working of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

"I don't think there is any reason why that should not happen. It is what everyone wants, it is the right outcome, people in Northern Ireland here want their politicians to come together and agree these things and implement these things and so that is what needs to happen."

Sinn Fein claimed that more than £200 million extra was required to support welfare claimants on top of the £90 million a year the five parties agreed to allocate

DUP First Minister Peter Robinson has warned that if Northern Ireland diverged from Great Britain on benefits changes, it would have to purchase its own IT system - costing close to a billion pounds, or ask staff to make manual payments.

Talks are on-going between the DUP and Sinn Fein in an effort to design support schemes acceptable to both of them. The parties continue to sound optimistic notes that an agreement can be reached, although tangible evidence of progress has yet to emerge.

Mr Cameron said: "It is a pity that this has not been fully resolved, but I stand by the Stormont House Agreement. I think it was a very good agreement, I commend everyone for their hard work.

"We have put in place our bit of the deal, we have legislated for corporation tax to be given over to Northern Ireland, we are happy to make the other changes we have talked about - but everything needs to be put in place.

"We will keep working at it, we are hopeful of a good outcome - but everything needs to be put in place to move forward."

As well as a commitment to introduce welfare changes after a two-year impasse, the agreement gave the ministerial Executive access to a £2 billion financial package from the Treasury, primarily in the shape of extended borrowing powers.

The deal also paved the way for the devolution of corporation tax powers to allow Northern Ireland to compete for investment with the Republic of Ireland and the setting of a sustainable budget for 2015/16.

It also established new mechanisms for dealing with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

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