Belfast Telegraph

McGuinness warns of Tory victory

A Conservative victory in the general election and the further £12 billion of welfare cuts that would bring will have "disastrous consequences" for the Stormont Executive, Martin McGuinness has warned.

Amid an on-going political crisis over the delayed implementation of the current Government's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, the Deputy First Minister expressed fears problems would only intensify if David Cameron is returned as Prime Minister in May.

The Sinn Fein veteran said he was optimistic a deal could be done before Easter to resolve the latest internal Executive row over welfare legislation, but he claimed the outcome of the UK election could change the landscape again.

"What is coming down the track at us if this Tory-led administration is elected in the course of the next number of weeks I think are disastrous consequences for this Executive that I am honoured to be part of," he said.

Mr McGuinness was critical of Chancellor George Osborne's budget warning of a further £12 billion of welfare savings across the UK in the next parliament.

He said he believed a Labour victory would be much better for Northern Ireland, claiming Ed Miliband "got it" in regard to acknowledging that a society damaged by conflict had particular welfare requirements.

"Whatever emerges we will have to work with, but I do think if a Tory-led administration emerges in the aftermath of the next election the pain we have seen thus far will be nothing to what we will experience in the time ahead," Mr McGuinness added.

The latest impasse in the long-delayed process of implementing welfare reforms in the region 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 last week 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 between the five Executive parties and the British and Irish governments.

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

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 McGuinness provided his assessment of the state of the negotiations as he attended an event in Belfast to launch Sinn Fein's plans to commemorate next year's 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

"I am very determined to get a deal not just before the election but before the Easter recess," he said.

"And I think given the time-frame we have given ourselves in terms of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement - with all of the pain and challenges that that brings - that it's still eminently do-able."

As well as a commitment by the local parties to introduce welfare reforms, the Stormont House Agreement gave the 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 the region and the setting of a sustainable budget for 2015/16. It also established new mechanisms for dealing with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

A spokesman for the Conservative Party responded to Mr McGuinness's claims.

"A majority Conservative government will continue with our long-term economic plan, which is rescuing the economy from the chaos we inherited from Labour," he said.

"In Northern Ireland unemployment has fallen for each of the last 26 months and by 13,000 in the past year and we are taking over 100,000 of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether.

"The greatest danger for Northern Ireland is a Labour government backed by the SNP - one party that wants to bankrupt the UK and another that wants to break it up."

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