Belfast Telegraph

Leaders skip St Patrick's Day trip

Northern Ireland's political leaders will not attend St Patrick's Day celebrations in Washington because of the stalemate over welfare reform.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will instead try to thrash out a resolution to the impasse threatening the power-sharing institutions at Stormont.

Mr Robinson, who had previously stated he would not go the White House if the row was unresolved, used Twitter to confirm he would be staying in Belfast on Tuesday.

He said: " White House agree priority is to maintain momentum in finding a resolution to welfare issue. Best to be in Northern Ireland dealing with it."

Earlier, Mr McGuinness said he wanted to focus on resolving the crisis which has enveloped the devolved administration since Sinn Fein pulled its support for welfare legislation.

He said: "I have decided therefore in the best interests of trying to move the situation forward that I will not be travelling to the US to take part in events marking St Patrick's Day.

"The number one priority for me and my party is finding a resolution to the difficulties currently facing the Executive."

The First and Deputy First Ministers had been invited to meet US president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden at the White House as part of a series of engagements on March 17.

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny is expected in Washington for the annual St Patrick's Day festivities.

Sinn Fein's shock announcement last Monday, came just hours before a final assembly debate on the implementation of the welfare reform act.

Republicans accused the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rivals of acting in bad faith over publicly funded mitigation schemes designed to protect people who lose out under the reformed UK welfare system.

The row centres on whether future claimants, not just existing ones, would be covered.

The DUP have insisted there was no agreement to support future claimants arguing that such a system would require an additional £286 million.

Representatives from the five main Executive parties have been engaged in emergency talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers since Thursday and n egotiations are expected to resume tomorrow.

Both, the First and Deputy First Ministers have acknowledged progress has been made.

Mr McGuinness told Irish State broadcaster RTE he believed a breakthrough may be possible by the middle of the week.

He said: "Officials are working on all of this. I will be meeting Peter Robinson again tomorrow. I would hope that by the middle of the week that we would have an agreement."

Following five hours of meetings on Friday, Mr Robinson said finding a resolution on the issue was not without hope.

Implementing the Government's changes to the benefits system is a key plank of the landmark Stormont House Agreement which was brokered after 11 weeks of negotiations culminated in a marathon 30-hour round of talks on December 23.

Without the already long-delayed legislation passing, the whole deal would likely implode and the future of the devolved institutions would be plunged into uncertainty.

Ms Villiers has warned that without agreement on welfare the budget would be unsustainable and devolution of corporation tax powers would be thrust in jeopardy.

Prime Minister David Cameron has also called for Sinn Fein to fulfil the pledge made in the Stormont House Agreement.

F ormer senator Gary Hart who represented secretary of state John Kerry during the Stormont House Agreement talks has also urged the parties to find a solution.

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