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Peter Robinson: Honour welfare deal or Stormont is doomed

By Liam Clarke

Published 20/06/2015

First Minister Peter Robinson greets Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the British-Irish Council Summit at Dublin Castle yesterday
First Minister Peter Robinson greets Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the British-Irish Council Summit at Dublin Castle yesterday

The future of the Executive is hanging by a thread as Martin McGuinness said he could resign if London takes control of welfare and Peter Robinson predicted the Assembly would collapse unless the issue was settled.

Both men were speaking at a British-Irish Council meeting in Dublin Castle, which was chaired by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Mr Robinson, who spoke briefly and is recuperating from a heart attack, said the welfare issue must be resolved within "the next few months".

Weeks have been mentioned before.

This statement seems to push the crisis further down the road until at least the autumn.

Mr McGuinness was quizzed on the issue by the Belfast Telegraph on Tuesday.

He said he would ask the Sinn Fein ard chomhairle for permission to resign if Westminster legislated for welfare reform above Stormont's head.

The welfare reform measures in Britain involve a reduction of the rate of increase in benefits, and if we want to pay more we must make up the difference ourselves from other budgets.

Mr McGuinness said: "As a Sinn Fein leader, I have a responsibility to discuss these matters with the national leadership of Sinn Fein, and in that eventuality to put to them my view of what should happen.

"I'm not going to go any further than that at this stage, except to say that we have a problem, it is a serious problem, it is a crisis, and it needs to be resolved."

This will be taken as confirmation that he will recommend resignation rather than administer cuts set in London.

Unionists believe that the British Government, which had considered legislating, as Mr Robinson suggested, is now backing away from the idea.

A McGuinness resignation would lead to the collapse of the Executive unless Sinn Fein nominated a replacement.

Mr Robinson told journalists that unless the Stormont House Agreement - which accepted the welfare changes - is honoured, there is no future for the Northern Executive.

He warned the impasse was already impacting on the economy of Northern Ireland.

Mr McGuinness countered by saying the Executive had had £1.5bn cut from its budget by the British Government and that was the root of the problem.

He added that the North was a society emerging from conflict, with disproportionately more people reliant on welfare.

His solution was to join with other devolved administrations to fight austerity and demand more generosity from London.

He met Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, on the fringes of the summit to discuss this.

The Taoiseach briefed members on his summit with David Cameron on Thursday and also called for progress on Northern Ireland issues.

The Stormont House Agreement, signed late last year, sets a blueprint for the future of dealing with several contentious issues like parades, flags, emblems and the past.

It also set out a scheme for compensating welfare claimants who lost out in the switch.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP later said this was inadequate.

They withdrew support and demanded renegotiation of the financial aspects.

Despite twice ruling out resigning if things went against him, Mr McGuinness pledged his best efforts to sorting out the impasse.

"I'm in resolution mode. I am a problem solver," he stated.

Like Mr Kenny, he said he hoped Britain would not leave the EU, saying that outcome would be "a hammer blow" for the North.

Martin McGuinness 'in resolution mode'  

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