Belfast Telegraph

Welfare reform deal 'on cards' as Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness call off White House St Patrick's Day visit

By Adrian Rutherford

A deal on welfare reform could be struck within days, Martin McGuinness has claimed.

It came after he and Peter Robinson dramatically pulled out of a visit to the United States in a bid to break the impasse.

The First and Deputy First Ministers will not attend the St Patrick's Day celebrations in Washington.

Both will instead work to end the deadlock which is threatening the future of the power-sharing institutions.

Mr Robinson used Twitter to confirm he would be staying in Belfast.

He said: "White House agree priority is to maintain momentum in finding a resolution to welfare issue. Best to be in Northern Ireland dealing with it."

Earlier, Mr McGuinness said he wanted to focus on resolving the crisis, which was sparked after Sinn Fein pulled its support for welfare reform legislation.

"The number one priority for me and my party is finding a resolution to the difficulties currently facing the Executive," he said.

Separately, Mr McGuinness told Irish state broadcaster RTE that a solution to the crisis was within reach.

"I've been involved in discussions since last Monday with Peter Robinson on a consistent basis," he said.

"We have identified a way forward, which I think can resolve this difficulty.

"As we speak, officials are working on all of this.

"I'll be meeting Peter Robinson again tomorrow. I would hope by the middle of the week that we would have an agreement."

Asked how a new welfare system would be funded, Mr McGuinness replied: "I think that's a matter that is presently under discussion.

"As a result of identifying a way forward, we have also identified how it will be funded, but it will be funded from within our own resources."

Other politicians are flying to the US for the St Patrick's Day festivities. Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt are both going, as is SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell and the party's sole Executive minister, Mark H Durkan.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is expected in Washington for the annual celebration.

Sinn Fein announced last Monday that it was withdrawing its support for the Welfare Reform Bill - just hours before a final Assembly debate on the matter.

The party accused the DUP of going back on what had been agreed.

But the DUP rejected this, saying Sinn Fein knew there had never been the money for all the things it wanted.

Representatives from the five main parties have been engaged in emergency talks with Ms Villiers since Thursday.

Negotiations are expected to resume today.

Ms Villiers has warned that without agreement on welfare the budget would be unsustainable and devolution of corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland would be put in jeopardy.

Prime Minister David Cameron has also called for Sinn Fein to fulfil the pledge which was made in the Stormont House Agreement.

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