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Stormont crisis: Arlene Foster says it's time for Westminster to take over and implement welfare reforms

By Noel McAdam

Published 28/05/2015

Finance Minister Arlene Foster
Finance Minister Arlene Foster

The Finance Minister has urged the UK Government to step in now and implement welfare reforms in Northern Ireland over the head of the Stormont Executive.

Arlene Foster said today would be a day for "straight talking" with the Sinn Fein and the SDLP at an Executive meeting.

The DUP minister blamed the budget crisis now threatening Stormont squarely on the two nationalist parties and she called on them to table their solutions.

"The cuts required to make the books balance are impossible," she writes below. "It is now time for Westminster to implement welfare reform."

And in a direct challenge to Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers did not rule out London taking back control of welfare, although it would happen only as a "last resort".

Ms Villiers said the budgetary crisis that has engulfed Stormont over the ongoing failure to introduce the changes to the benefits system had forced her to "reluctantly" consider the option of moving the required legislation at Westminster instead.

"We've got to look at different options now," she said.

"It is not a road we want to go down but we do have to think about the options, one of which would potentially be legislating on welfare reform at Westminster."

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness immediately issued a warning that London taking over on welfare reform legislation would be a "huge mistake".

But he refused to spell out whether it would precipitate his party withdrawing from the Assembly altogether.

It also emerged that the Government may pull the plug on loans to the Executive as the financial crisis intensifies.

Westminster is considering withdrawing access to loans which would have financed the exit scheme designed to shed 20,000 public sector jobs, as well as putting the devolution of corporation tax on hold.

Ms Villiers also stressed, however, the Assembly and Executive are "a long way" from collapsing.

She was allowed to miss the Queen's Speech in Parliament to kickstart a new round of talks with the five Executive parties, which will be completed today. Ms Villiers said she was "more pessimistic" as a result of the vote in the Assembly on Tuesday but also stressed her belief that a "way through" can still be found.

The crunch will not come until the end of next month, which would be followed by emergency measures around the end of July when the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance would allocate the various departments up to 95% of their Budgets from last year.

If either First Minister Peter Robinson or Mr McGuinness resigned, the Assembly would fold.

And the Government could also suspend the institutions, which would require emergency legislation at Westminster. But Ms Villiers said she could not envisage a scenario where the Government would suspend power-sharing.

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