Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein move 'disappointing'

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said she is "hugely disappointed" at Sinn Fein's dramatic withdrawal of support for welfare reform legislation just hours before a final vote on the Bill.

The "significant setback" has plunged Stormont into a fresh crisis as it holds up the devolution of further powers including corporation tax.

Today in the Commons Ms Villiers said there had been "bumps in the road" in the past and she hoped the parties would come together to resolve the row.

But she warned that if the Stormont House Agreement was jeopardised, it could plunge the country back into the budgetary crisis the parties were grappling with last year.

The Tory frontbencher said: "I believe the change of mind by Sinn Fein is unhelpful and hugely disappointing but, as I have said, the task now is for the Northern Ireland executive parties to work to continue with efforts to implement the Stormont House Agreement.

"I hope to get the party leaders together as soon as possible to discuss how we resolve this question.

"The Stormont House Agreement will not be reopened. We do need to press ahead with implementation. The corporation tax question is difficult. It is expressly linked with resolution of welfare reform.

"The Bill contains a commencement clause and there is no question that this welfare question must be resolved, the executive must fulfil its obligations under the Stormont House Agreement, before the commencement could be operated.

"But in the interim the Government is proposing to continue with the legislation to complete its parliamentary progress because we are determined to implement the agreement fully and fairly.

"Let me be very clear, Northern Ireland will not get these devolved powers until the Stormont House Agreement is implemented."

The shock development earlier this week has triggered another bitter row between Sinn Fein and its main partners in the executive - the Democratic Unionists (DUP) - with both trading accusations of bad faith.

The argument centres on the terms of executive-funded mitigation schemes designed to support those benefit claimants set to lose out when the UK Government's long-delayed welfare reforms are rolled out in the region.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Sinn Fein's actions in reneging on the agreement had left people "stunned, bewildered and indeed angry".

He said in the Commons: "It is very clear that Sinn Fein are putting their own narrow self party interest ahead of vulnerable people and the entire community in Northern Ireland.

"The responsibility for the current crisis lies squarely with Sinn Fein who are reneging on their commitments clearly made and openly expressed in the Stormont House Agreement."

Ms Villiers agreed the current setback was the result of Sinn Fein's actions and called it a "significant surprise, given the enthusiasm with which the Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein were promoting the agreement".

She added: "It would be a huge step backwards if the Stormont House Agreement were to be jeopardised and it would plunge us back potentially into the kind of budget and political crisis with which we were grappling last year."

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis also raised the matter in the Commons.

He said the unravelling of the agreement would be an "unmitigated disaster" for economic and political confidence in Northern Ireland.

Ms Villiers replied: "Now is the time for level-headed consideration of how we get this resolved. The reality is that in the autumn in Northern Ireland we were facing a situation where the budget crisis was so serious that the very sustainability and future credibility of the institutions was at stake.

"We genuinely were looking over a cliff at the possibility of devolution collapsing altogether.

"It would be a huge step backwards to return us to that. The Stormont House Agreement was a big step forward. It is vital that all parties work to ensure it is implemented fully and fairly."

Mr Lewis asked if the minister would convene urgent talks to find a way forward and to clarify the deadline date by which the Bill must be passed if the executive and not civil servants are to set next year's budget.

Ms Villiers said: "I expect to be meeting with the five party leaders in the coming days, hopefully tomorrow.

"It is vital that we see progress on welfare reform. That is a key part of the Stormont House Agreement. I will be pressing for that, not least because without this approach the Northern Ireland executive's budget becomes unsustainable which hugely impairs its ability to function effectively."

Later in the session, Ms Villiers said: "The approach taken by Sinn Fein is hugely disappointing and dramatically different to everything they have been saying over the last few months.

"I am urging them to change their approach ... the welfare reform package agreed under the Stormont House Agreement is a good one, a generous one and a fair one."

Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) branded the SDLP Sinn Fein's "lapdogs" and said they bore some of the responsibility for holding up the process.

Ms Villiers replied: "If this question isn't resolved ... then obviously the rest of the Stormont House Agreement doesn't happen and that includes the financial package, the devolution of corporation tax.

"But we are not at that point yet. It is important to work intensively and in the meantime the UK Government will do everything we can to continue to implement the agreement."

SDLP MP Mark Durkan said there were two elements to the understanding on welfare reform - firstly around the amount of money from the executive's budget that could mitigate measures, and secondly the degree of leeway within the welfare spending.

He asked: "Has anything changed in the lines from the Department for Work and Pensions that have given rise to the allegations now that Sinn Fein are making against the DUP?"

Ms Villiers replied: "I agree we need to do all we can to keep the situation as calm as possible.

"The reality is unfortunately these kinds of episodes are characteristic of the implementation process of agreements.

"I think what is going to be helpful now is for as many facts to be made clear as possible about how the welfare reform programme will operate in Northern Ireland and how the top-ups will operate.

"It is a generous package and I think once the details are clear I hope everyone will be convinced of it."

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