Belfast Telegraph

Stormont Executive parties agree deal on welfare reform - paper sent to Government

By Claire Cromie

The five Stormont Executive parties have finally agreed a deal on welfare reform, the Belfast Telegraph understands.

The breakthrough comes after ten weeks of intense political talks about the budget, as well as legacy peace process issues.

A financial paper has been sent to Theresa Villiers. It is believed the parties have agreed to increase the £70m "cushion" for welfare, but are asking the UK Government for extra money to deal with the past, investment and institutional change.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tweeted today: ""A step change in negotiations!! Our team focused but more to do!!"

A dispute between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein over welfare reforms imposed by Westminster has led to log jam and the threat of thousands of public sector job losses.

The British and Irish Governments have led efforts to resolve the stand-off, with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan chairing the negotiations.

A statement from Mr Flanagan today said: "The Secretary of State, Minister Sherlock and I met with the five executive parties this morning.

"Substantial progress has been made in negotiations over the past 24 hours. Intensive engagement continues.

"We remain firmly of the view that a successful and comprehensive outcome to this process will be in the best interests of the people of this island and are working to that end."

Republicans adamantly opposed benefits changes which they claimed targeted the most vulnerable.

Failure to implement them could cost the devolved ministerial Executive around £200 million in penalties to the block grant, producing dramatic public spending cuts.

The negotiations ended without agreement last Friday despite the presence of Prime Minister David Cameron and his Irish counterpart Enda Kenny.

The Taoiseach has accused Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams of preventing Mr McGuinness from reaching a deal on welfare, a claim described by Mr McGuinness as "laughable".

Mr Cameron offered the Northern Ireland parties what he said was almost £1 billion of extra spending power. The DUP and Sinn Fein rejected the proposal as not good enough.

DUP enterprise minister Arlene Foster has said the consequences for the political process of not striking a deal could be dire.

Additional reporting by PA

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