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Peter Robinson hopeful of £87m bonus for striking welfare deal

By Liam Clarke

Northern Ireland could get an £87m sweetener from Westminster if agreement on welfare reform is reached, First Minister Peter Robinson has said.

That is the amount that London is deducting from our block grant this year because we have overspent our budget by failing to bring in welfare cuts.

Until now the DUP and Government have both insisted that no further concessions are available but Mr Robinson now hopes that London will set these initial charges aside if we bring spending into line from now on.

"We have £87m that we are facing in penalties this year," Mr Robinson told the Stephen Nolan programme.

"I would have been very hopeful that if we went into negotiations and reached an agreement on how we are dealing with welfare reform that the Government would say 'we will wipe out those penalties'.

"That is the objective, I would have thought, of any of the Northern Ireland parties – to ensure that people aren't penalised in Northern Ireland."

It is understood that he held telephone conversations with Prime Minister David Cameron in recent days.

Mr Robinson will be hoping that the prospect of a united front to push the Government on this final concession will help encourage Sinn Fein to compromise on welfare reform.

Both the British and Irish governments are keen to get all-party talks started and are likely to be directly involved.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers is holding a series of private meetings with political leaders and Mr Cameron is being kept informed.

The Irish government is also involved in the talks plans.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: "I spoke to David Cameron about this after the last European Council meeting.

"We are taking a very active interest in this both from his level as Prime Minister and from mine as Taoiseach... I hope they [the talks] will take place very soon."

Sinn Fein also welcomed the idea. "Negotiations should be convened immediately by the two governments with the support and assistance of the US administration," Martin McGuinness told a party strategy conference yesterday.

"The context must and will be the Good Friday Agreement which the Irish people democratically endorsed.

"In any negotiations Sinn Fein will defend that agreement and the institutions that flowed from it."

Mr McGuinness also hit out at the welfare reforms.

"The one thing that should unite the northern Executive is the defence and protection of those who need the support and help of wider society," he added.

"Since the Tory-led coalition came to power there has been a sustained and systematic assault on public services and the very concept of the welfare state.

"The money allocated to the Executive has remained static year on year.

"In the context of inflation, increasing wages and rising costs this means a real cut in public spending every year.

"Next year we are facing into a £500m reduction which will have a devastating effect on our public services."

Mr McGuinness added: "None of the policies of the Tory-led coalition takes any account of the unique challenges facing the north of Ireland as a society emerging from conflict with higher levels of deprivation, higher living costs and greater dependence on the public sector."

Background

Peter Robinson sent shockwaves through the political system by telling the Belfast Telegraph that Stormont was dysfunctional and could not survive unless a deal was agreed on welfare reform.

Sinn Fein has resisted welfare changes introduced in Britain. As a result Westminster is clawing back tens of millions, forcing deep cuts in public spending here.

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