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US could help resolve Stormont dispute

Published 29/07/2015

Theresa Villiers in Washington DC, where she has held meetings regarding a political dispute threatening power-sharing at Stormont
Theresa Villiers in Washington DC, where she has held meetings regarding a political dispute threatening power-sharing at Stormont
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness outside the White House during his transatlantic trip, which has been branded a "waste of time" by the Democratic Unionists

The US administration is willing to bring its influence to bear to resolve a political dispute that is threatening power-sharing at Stormont, Northern Ireland's Secretary of State has said.

Theresa Villiers is in Washington where she has held meetings with officials from the State Department, the National Security Council and vice president Joe Biden's office.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is also in the US this week on a similar round of engagements with the administration.

The separate transatlantic trips come as the devolved institutions in Belfast edge toward collapse due a bitter row over the non-implementation of the Government's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.

Ms Villiers said the US administration was anxious about the situation.

"The reaction has been sympathetic," she said.

"There is a long-standing interest in Northern Ireland matters in Washington and I thought it was important to make sure they were briefed on the current political situation.

"Certainly there is anxiety about the political deadlock and its potential consequences."

Without rolling out the UK Government's changes to the benefits system, last year's wide-ranging Stormont House Agreement between the Executive's five parties and the British and Irish governments is in limbo.

The deadlock, due to a Sinn Fein/SDLP veto on welfare, has contributed to a black hole in the Executive's budget running to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness outside the White House during his transatlantic trip, which has been branded a
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness outside the White House during his transatlantic trip, which has been branded a "waste of time" by the Democratic Unionists

While initially voicing support for the overall Stormont House Agreement, Sinn Fein later withdrew backing for the welfare reform section - claiming proposed Executive-funded top-up schemes for claimants were not as comprehensive as they envisaged.

The Government and the unionist parties have blamed Sinn Fein's stance on welfare for the crisis, while the republican party claims the root of the problem is the Government's "austerity agenda".

Ms Villiers said the administration in Washington had offered to help with efforts to find a resolution.

"They are very willing to help," she said. "They are very willing to try to bring influence to bear and I have been encouraging them to engage with all sides to encourage the five Northern Ireland parties to work together to try to find a resolution to this impasse, and there's willingness to engage in that way in Washington."

Sinn Fein's main partner in government, the Democratic Unionists, have heavily criticised Mr McGuinness's decision to fly to the US, branding it a "waste of time".

Ms Villiers said she did not know the motivation behind the Deputy First Minister's trip but she did not criticise him.

"I don't know exactly what the rationale of Martin's visit is but Sinn Fein have very long standing ties with Irish America and I know he and his colleagues are out here regularly with those kind of discussions," she said.

"It doesn't change the fundamentals of what we need to do - to get the Stormont House Agreement implemented."

The welfare deadlock has put the rest of the measures contained in the Stormont House accord on hold.

Those include the devolution of corporation tax powers to Belfast, access from the Treasury to £2 billion of additional spending powers, a major civil service redundancy scheme and new institutions to deal with the thorny legacy of the Troubles.

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