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Mediator could be called in to resolve Stormont welfare row

By Noel McAdam

Stormont Ministers are considering independent arbitration in an attempt to resolve the bitter impasse over welfare reform which could drain more than £100m from Executive funds this year.

Senior sources have confirmed that First Minister Peter Robinson made the suggestion as a way of attempting to end the deadlock over the UK-wide upheaval in the benefits system.

They also said there was broad support for the idea from Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance ministers at a special Executive meeting on Monday.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is now expected to respond to the idea in the run-up to the next Executive meeting, but there was no immediate comment from Sinn Fein yesterday.

Both main parties do not anticipate reaching a full agreement over the long-running stand-off before the European Parliament and local government elections, now just six weeks away.

It is thought, although not confirmed, that both the DUP and Sinn Fein would have to agree in advance to accept the outcome of the arbitration exercise.

But it is unclear whether the Executive would appoint an independent person to conduct the mediation, or use another mechanism, such as Stormont's Performance, Efficiency and Delivery Unit (PEDU).

PEDU has previously investigated the inter-departmental muddle between government departments and agencies that was exposed by a series of severe flooding incidents in Northern Ireland.

However, there was no confirmation of a possible mediation deal from Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, whose sub-committee of the Executive has failed to make progress on the issue over the last year.

A spokesman for Mr McCausland, whose department will be responsible for local implementation of the national changes, said: "We do not comment on or discuss Executive Business as it is confidential.

"If an announcement was to be made on any decision made by the Executive, it would come from OFMDFM."

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness were at loggerheads over the issue last week, with the deputy First Minister accusing Mr Robinson of crossing the line and the First Minister warning that responsibility for the benefits system here could go back to Westminster.

Mr Robinson claimed that Mr McGuinness had failed to "sell" an outline deal to the rest of Sinn Fein and had called a meeting with the First Minister on a Saturday to tell him so.

Slamming the breach of Executive confidentiality, Mr McGuinness said: "I think he crossed the line and I think it was a big mistake for him to cross that line."

BACKGROUND

A letter last week from Treasury secretary Danny Alexander to Stormont Finance Minister Simon Hamilton warned that Northern Ireland will lose £105m from its Westminster Block Grant this year over the failure to implement welfare reform.

In a long-running row, the DUP insists the consequences of non-compliance will be a devastating reduction in Government services, while Sinn Fein and the SDLP demand further talks.

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