Theresa Villiers warns budgets will be imposed if Stormont cannot solve welfare crisis
Stormont will limp on with ministers being handed their budgets by civil servants unless the welfare reform crisis is resolved within weeks.
That was the stark warning from Secretary of State Theresa Villiers after completing a round of meetings with Executive parties yesterday.
She ruled out giving them any more money to pay for welfare reform, taking power over welfare back to Westminster (as the First Minister proposes) or reintroducing direct rule.
"Giving more money is not one of the options on the table. The UK Government will not fund a more expensive welfare system in Northern Ireland than we pay for elsewhere in the UK. We've absolutely done our very best to help Northern Ireland in terms of a spending package of around £2bn extra focused on Northern Ireland's particular needs."
She added: "If the Northern Ireland Executive chooses to give more generous welfare payments, it needs to fund it out of its block grant. As a UK government we do need to make sure we are fair to all parts of the UK in relation to the decisions we make about Northern Ireland."
The British Government changed its system of welfare, reducing the rate of increase, but here Sinn Fein vetoed the changes. Late last year the Stormont House Agreement seemed to have settled the issues with a system of loans from Westminster, which ultimately allowed Northern Ireland to subsidise some welfare payments. Last month Sinn Fein pulled out of the deal, saying it didn't provide enough support.
Asked if she was going into negotiations with her "two arms the one length" offering nothing, she replied: "This is not a financial negotiation between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government. This has to be resolved between the parties, we are not offering any additional spending power.
"We are not reopening another financial negotiation with the Northern Ireland Executive. The five parties signed up to the Stormont House Agreement and they need to find a way to implement it, that is what the talks are about." In two weeks' time we enter the June monitoring round and Malcolm McKibbin, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has already warned London that we are on track to overspend. Asked if Westminster would take back welfare powers at that point, she said it would neither do that nor reintroduce direct rule.
"It isn't true that if this isn't resolved in a fortnight then we are back at direct rule. There are more stages that would have to be gone through before we were in that situation. The Executive would become increasingly dysfunctional if this isn't resolved within two to three weeks and ultimately civil servants would have to take decisions on spending plans."
She added: "The Executive is the same as any devolved institution. It carries on until it can no longer form an administration and then you have an Assembly election. The entire system needn't collapse just because of the budget. I don't think that is immediately round the corner."
Civil servants could automatically cut 25% off budgets and it is likely that, eventually, ministers would resign rather than implement this.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, met Ms Villiers yesterday. He warned her that "any attempt by a Conservative Government to run riot in Northern Ireland, undermining our fragile peace and condemning our young people to hopelessness, would be vigorously opposed by the SDLP."
He was critical of Tory proposals for an in/out referendum on EU membership and of replacing the Human Rights Act. However, Ms Villiers defended both decisions.