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Villiers jets off to US in a bid to save Stormont

By Liam Clarke

Published 28/07/2015

Theresa Villiers is in Washington to spell out her position
Theresa Villiers is in Washington to spell out her position
Martin McGuinness is in Washington to spell out his position

The Secretary of State and Deputy First Minister are involved in a transatlantic game of political cat and mouse as each seeks to convince the US administration to pressurise the other into compromise.

Martin McGuinness's decision to go it alone without backing from Peter Robinson or the Executive has led to speculation that he may be going to spell out the conditions for continuing in government.

The Sinn Fein MLA left yesterday, just as Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers announced she would be meeting US officials today. The NIO said her three-day visit had been planned some time ago.

The US administration has not put a top figure, such as President Obama or the Secretary of State John Kerry, forward. Instead both Mr McGuinness and Ms Villiers will today have separate meetings with Drew O'Brien, a senior career public servant who is currently Special Representative in Mr Kerry's Office of Global Partnerships.

Mr O'Brien is a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland. His department cancelled a recent planned investment conference when the dispute over welfare reform blew up. Before Christmas the Executive parties concluded the Stormont House Agreement, which would have passed welfare reforms here, with a special fund set up by Stormont to ease the burden on claimants.

The Agreement also freed up grants and loans totalling nearly £700m from London. However, a few weeks later Sinn Fein withdrew support saying that it had been misled and more money was needed, especially since the Tories had been re-elected in May and announced more cuts on July 8.

Sinn Fein wants the terms renegotiated but Ms Villiers and her government are adamant that this will not happen. They have said that they don't rule out taking back powers over welfare and making the cuts in Westminster. Mr McGuinness has said that could bring the administration down, a hint that he could resign.

Mr McGuinness is also meeting the Friends of Ireland Caucus on Capitol Hill and Friends of Sinn Fein, who are arranging the trip.

"The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, which have underpinned the Irish peace process for almost two decades, are facing crisis… in order to redress this crisis, we require an imaginative and innovative solution, which recognises the particular challenges faced by our administration. That means ensuring the institutions are politically and economically viable," the Sinn Fein leader said.

While he urged the US to get Britain to "change its approach" by providing more money than agreed, Ms Villiers is giving no sign that this will happen.

Ms Villiers said: "The Stormont House Agreement remains the best hope for building a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland. But it needs to be implemented in full. I will be looking for continued US support for that."

She added: "The Stormont House Agreement provides an additional £2bn of spending power for the Executive. It now needs to manage its resources responsibly, including implementing the welfare reforms.

The DUP is not joining the rush to Washington but it did condemn Mr McGuinness's tactics.

"Mr McGuinness's time would be better spent sorting our problems at home caused by his party. Every week in Northern Ireland we are losing almost £2m in penalties from the Treasury as a direct consequence of Sinn Fein bottling on their commitments made in the Stormont House Agreement," said DUP MP Gregory Campbell.

Sinn Fein has confirmed that the party is paying for Martin McGuinness to travel to America.

Quotes

"Those parties currently blocking welfare reform are simply putting more strain on the Executive's finances with the inevitable consequences that will have for frontline public services.

"We are determined to do whatever is necessary to ensure the implementation of the Agreement.

"That is the message I shall be taking to the US this week."

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers

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