Stormont: Sinn Fein rules out welfare reform deal
Future of Stormont institutions thrown into chaos by Maskey comments
The future of the Assembly and Executive have been plunged into further doubt after Sinn Fein ruled out a deal over welfare reform before the General Election.
Senior SF negotiator Alex Maskey also said he would not "give great hope" about the sustainability of the institutions, while background talks with the DUP over the benefits impasse continue.
The warning means the latest stand-off will most likely become an issue for the next UK Government - and could mean the Stormont House Agreement will begin to unravel.
That in turn would put a question mark over the devolution of Corporation Tax, access to around £200m of Treasury loans and uncertainty over the public sector 'exit' scheme designed to shed 20,000 jobs.
Mr Maskey told a conference on homelessness in Belfast: "It is quite unrealistic to think we will get a deal on welfare reform before May 7.
"At this present time, I couldn't give great hope as to the sustainability of the political institutions, because, if it requires an agreement on the basis of the welfare reform deal we are getting at present from Westminster, then a deal is not on offer."
Responding to questions from the editor of the social affairs magazine The View, Brian Pelan, Mr Maskey also said the protections his party wants to see built into the, now stalled legislation underpinning the reforms, are a "red line issue" for Sinn Fein.
But DUP Minister Simon Hamilton insisted a deal is essential or the present Budget that all government departments are working to is endangered.
"There was a deal on welfare in December. All five parties agreed to this package. It is regrettable that Sinn Fein has walked away from that deal," the Finance Minister told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Regardless of the election, we will continue working with Sinn Fein and the other parties to get a resolution to this issue. However, there will be no more money for the welfare package. Any agreement must be within the spending envelope agreed at Stormont Castle. Failure to reach an agreement will have significant budgetary consequences."
With the Assembly resuming on Monday after a two-week Easter break, the two main parties will remain in talks, hoping to be able to implement the changes before the next recess in June.
Otherwise, the latest £140m 'fine' from the Treasury over the ongoing failure to bring in welfare reform will also begin to kick in.
In a letter in An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams argued the crisis had been sparked by the DUP "resiling from a key part of the Stormont House Agreement providing social protections for citizens."
But DUP leader Peter Robinson hit back yesterday: "Once again Mr Adams is seen to be flying in the face of established facts and refusing to accept the problem has arisen, either because of Sinn Fein's incompetence during the negotiations or Sinn Fein's deal-breaking after the negotiations."
After briefings two weeks ago, United States 'envoy' Gary Hart predicted the stand-off would be dealt with ahead of the May 7 election.
During his brief visit this week, Prime Minister David Cameron said he hoped it would not become an issue for the new government.
Sinn Fein claim another £200m extra is required to support welfare claimants. But Peter Robinson has warned that if Northern Ireland diverged from Great Britain on benefits changes, it would have to purchase its own IT system - costing close to a billion pounds.