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DUP ready for welfare debate despite Peter Robinson's heart attack

By Liam Clarke

Published 26/05/2015

It seems Mervyn Storey, the Social Development Minister, will put forward the Welfare Bill without Peter Robinson being present.
It seems Mervyn Storey, the Social Development Minister, will put forward the Welfare Bill without Peter Robinson being present.

The DUP is set to press ahead with a crunch debate on welfare reform at Stormont today, despite the illness of its leader.

It was Peter Robinson himself who put the motion forward because he warned that the Executive faces financial meltdown and a huge budget black hole if welfare is not agreed.

Nationalists have vowed to veto the DUP move and have deployed measures to block the Welfare Reform Bill when it is brought to the floor of the Assembly.

Mr Robinson warned last week he would seek to hand welfare powers back to London if the Bill was rejected.

This makes today very pressured and uncertain.

The DUP's intention yesterday evening was that Mervyn Storey, the Social Development Minister, should put forward the Welfare Bill without Mr Robinson being present.

Last night Mr Storey was not hopeful that the SDLP would withdraw its petition of concern, which will stop the Bill being passed.

However, he pointed out that he had already said he would try to address some of its concerns later when the regulations on welfare were drawn up and that offer was still open.

If the Bill does not pass, for instance if it is stopped by a petition of concern, then the DUP will ask the UK Government to legislate over the Assembly's head to break the deadlock over our budget.

The Government will be loathe to do that. So far it has preferred to let the existing procedure run its course. That would mean civil servants taking over and setting budgets, with heavy cuts for ministers to follow.

That could well lead to the collapse of Stormont if either the DUP or Sinn Fein pulled out rather than be dictated to by civil servants.

Last night Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said it was up to the DUP if it wanted to go ahead with the welfare debate today.

He added: "A number of parties have called on the DUP to withdraw the Welfare Bill to allow for further negotiations. Is that likely to happen? It's hard to say at this stage.

"It's hard to say how Peter's illness will play in to that. That's something only the Democratic Unionist Party can decide.

"The reality is that there is a petition of concern, supported by both Sinn Fein and the SDLP. We will have to wait and see what happens over the next number of hours and overnight to see whether or not that process will still be in train tomorrow.

"But I suppose that the main focus today for all of us has to be Peter's health, and the hope that he will recover from this setback," he added.

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