Belfast Telegraph

Welfare reform key issue - Robinson

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson has warned that Sinn Fein's failure to implement welfare reform is the problem most likely to bring down the devolved institutions.

Gerry Adams said the political process which his party leads in coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) faces its greatest challenge since the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

The republican leader claimed unionists had served the agenda of those opposed to the landmark peace process deal and accused the British Government of encouraging the unionist leadership by not fully engaging for four years.

Mr Robinson said: "By far the most damaging issue that has the potential to end devolution is the shameless denial by Sinn Fein of economic realities resulting from welfare reform."

Stormont deadlock over imposing welfare benefit cuts from Westminster threatens to strip millions from budgets for public spending after the Treasury threatened massive fines.

It is the latest in a series of disagreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

The republican party's president said there was no likelihood of talks resuming next month on contentious issues surrounding flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of thousands of conflict murders.

Mr Adams said: "The political process is in trouble."

He said there had been an absence of consistent positive leadership from unionists.

The Sinn Fein president added: "The anti-Good Friday Agreement axis within unionism, the pro-unionist stance of the British Secretary of State (Theresa Villiers), the refusal of Downing Street to honour its own obligations are combining to create the most serious threat to the political institutions in the north in recent years.

"The result of all this is directly undermining power-sharing and partnership government."

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has said the UK Government remains fully engaged in Northern Ireland.

But Mr Adams added: "The unionist leaderships have been encouraged in their posture by a British Government that has not been fully engaged with the political process for four years."

All-party dialogue has been stalled by a unionist protest over the handling of a loyal order parade in North Belfast.

Mr Robinson previously said the Stormont administration had been put under threat by a ruling barring an Orange Order parade from marching past Ardoyne.

He added today: "Once more we see the self-serving attempt by Sinn Fein to distract public attention from real problems by blaming everyone except itself for what it asserts is a crisis that impacts on the political institutions."

Mr Adams said t he DUP had repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to participate positively in any of the institutions.

"Instead it has adopted a tactical approach aimed at serving the political agenda of a fundamentalist rump in their party rather than the needs of the whole community, " he said.

Efforts were made to resolve community tensions via five-party talks chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, which ended after Christmas without agreement.

A NIO spokeswoman said: "The Secretary of State is in regular contact with all of the party leaders and her counterparts in the Irish and US governments. The Prime Minister maintains a very close interest too - he met Northern Ireland's political leaders recently - including Sinn Fein.

"The system of government set up under the Belfast Agreement is such that it enables locally elected politicians to assume responsibility for tackling difficult issues.

"That means Northern Ireland's political leaders delivering for the people of Northern Ireland including on the outstanding issues of flags, parades and the past. If an agreement on these issues is to stick, then it has to come from the parties themselves."

She said the Government believes that it is wrong to maintain a broken system that too often penalises work and which condemns many people to a life of poverty by parking them on benefits, rather than a reformed system that ensures work always pays and which is fair to recipients and taxpayers.

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