Stormont crisis looms over welfare
Stormont has been plunged into fresh crisis after Sinn Fein dramatically withdrew support for welfare reform legislation just hours before a final vote on the bill.
The unexpected move has again cast a dark cloud of uncertainty over the power-sharing institutions - just months after the Stormont House Agreement was heralded as having delivered long-sought stability.
The shock development has triggered another bitter row between Sinn Fein and its main partners in the Executive - the Democratic Unionists - 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.
Announcing the change of stance, which ultimately prompted the vote on the Welfare Reform Bill to be postponed, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "The DUP have acted in bad faith and are now reneging on their commitments to protect the most vulnerable."
The remarks drew an angry retort from DUP First Minister Peter Robinson.
"I have never seen such a dishonourable, ham-fisted statement as the one issued by Sinn Fein today," he said.
Sinn Fein's opponents have also questioned the timing of the announcement, coming as it did after the party's annual all-Ireland Ard fheis conference at the weekend, and have alleged a desire for power in the Republic of Ireland, where the party espouses a strident anti-austerity agenda in opposition, has influenced its balking at implementing cuts north of the border.
Consensus on introducing the welfare reforms, after a two year impasse, was a key plank of December's Stormont House Agreement between the five Executive parties and the British and Irish Governments.
Other elements of the deal, such as the devolution of corporation tax to the region and a sustainable budget for 2015/16, are entirely dependent on the changes to the welfare system being introduced.
Legislation to enable the devolution of corporation tax powers has passed through Westminster, but the transfer of responsibilities is dependent on the Executive being on a firm financial footing.
With the Executive set to be hit with a £114 million bill from Treasury if welfare reforms are not implemented this coming financial year - having already been hit with £100 million in penalties for the last two years - the consequences of not passing the legislation would be dire and would likely spell the collapse of the Executive.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, who chaired last year's Stormont House negotiations, said the developments were "deeply concerning".
"I urge the Northern Ireland parties to work together to resolve this issue and continue the progress made so far in implementing the Stormont House Agreement," she said.
"The Agreement offers us the prospects of stability, and of growing prosperity, building on corporation tax devolution. We must not put those prospects in peril. The situation requires everyone to show leadership and responsibility."
With Sinn Fein, supported by the nationalist SDLP, having tabled a contentious petition-of-concern voting mechanism that would have effectively blocked the bill, DUP Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey later told the Assembly he would not be moving the welfare reform legislation today.
The reforms have already been delayed by over two years, primarily due to Sinn Fein's reluctance to sign up to measures it claimed would hit the most vulnerable.
The row appeared to have been resolved in December's Stormont House deal when the five Executive parties agreed to offer additional financial assistance to claimants from its own pockets.
The same welfare reforms that proved controversial in Great Britain were to be brought into Northern Ireland - among them the so-called bedroom tax, the £26,000 cap on benefit claims, Universal Credit, and the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment.
But the key difference was that parties in Northern Ireland had agreed to introduce a number of new schemes to ensure additional financial support was directed to those set to lose out by changes to the benefits system.
So while Northern Ireland would have maintained parity with the rest of the UK in terms of the relative cost to the Treasury, claimants were set to benefit from a more generous system due to the added contribution direct from the Executive's coffers.
The parties had agreed to provisionally set aside around £560 million over the next six years to provide top-up payments to thousands of claimants.
Sinn Fein now claims the DUP has gone against its word in regard to how some of the Executive measures would work and be funded.
Essentially, its allegation centres on whether new claimants would be eligible for top-up payments, not just existing ones.
Mr McGuinness said: "At Stormont House the five parties agreed a series of measures to protect the vulnerable and safeguard current and future welfare claimants under the control of the Executive.
"However, the DUP have acted in bad faith and are now reneging on their commitments to protect the most vulnerable. It is their intention to provide only partial protection to current recipients of benefit and no protection whatsoever for future claimants.
"That is totally unacceptable. If the DUP want to strip benefits from children with disabilities, from adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick, or push children further into poverty, then they need to explain and justify that. Sinn Fein certainly will not accept that approach."
He added: "The DUP have attempted to effect Tory welfare cuts by subterfuge but at the heart of this crisis is the ideologically-driven attack on the welfare state by the Tory-led government in London.
"As we have repeatedly stated publicly, Sinn Fein will not be part of any agenda that punishes the most vulnerable in our society."
Mr Robinson denied his party had sought to alter the commitments and would implement "every word and number" of the agreement.
He said nobody could have been in any doubt about the scope of the coverage of the additional entitlements.
"This conundrum was always the same for every party in the Executive," he said.
"We had an agreement, we put the figures down so that there was no doubt, nobody can be in any doubt what we agreed to."
The DUP leader warned of the consequences of non-implementation.
"The Stormont House Agreement would fall because this is a key element of it," he said.
"If the Stormont House Agreement falls then we are back into a crisis situation."
He added: "They (Sinn Fein) have decided to bring the show to an end."
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said his party had also withdrawn support for welfare reform as it stood but claimed Sinn Fein's stance was not motivated by protecting the vulnerable.
"There is an element of political manoeuvring going on," he said.
"This is a stunt more about political positioning and political manoeuvring for electoral purposes rather than any interest in the poor and the vulnerable and the marginalised."
He added: "If Stormont comes down, it is not through act or power on our part, this place has to work for its people."
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt claimed Sinn Fein's stance was influenced by its desire for power in the Irish Republic.
"This is another example of extremely bad faith by Sinn Fein," he said.
"They knew in December what they were signing up to. For Martin McGuinness to say otherwise is disingenuous.
"For selfish political purposes, they have put at risk all of the political institutions. They got it in the ear at their party conference about rolling over on Welfare Reform, and now they've done a complete U-turn. It is now obvious that Sinn Fein are willing to sacrifice the fortunes of the vulnerable in Northern Ireland so that their electoral project in Dublin is not derailed."
David Ford, Alliance Party leader, accused his political rivals of cynicism and stupidity but questioned the benefit of holding fresh Assembly elections.
"We reached that deal before Christmas, it is clear that there were undercurrents but to get to a position where a petition of concern has been tabled against this bill, which was fully supported up to this point, is just beyond comprehension," he said.
But Jim Allister, leader of the non-Executive Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, said it was time for a snap Assembly election.
"The Stormont House Agreement is now in tatters," he said.
"The much vaunted deal which saved Stormont has patently failed to do its job and Peter Robinson has obviously been sold a pup by Republicans."
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis called for the British and Irish government to convene urgent all-party talks.
"Sinn Fein's decision to withdraw their support for the welfare reform bill is a very serious development which threatens political stability in Northern Ireland," he said.
Mr Lewis added: "Following a period of renewed optimism, today's news will once again undermine public confidence in Northern Ireland's political system."