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Crunch talks progress hope recedes

Published 02/06/2015

First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson is due to attend the meeting
First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson is due to attend the meeting

Hopes of progress at a crunch meeting to avert a financial meltdown at Stormont have receded further after the British government and Sinn Fein issued robust warnings reaffirming opposing positions.

The round table talks in Belfast involving both the UK and Irish governments and leaders of the five Executive parties is being convened in a bid to find a way to save the faltering Stormont House Agreement they all signed up to last year.

The deal has been thrown into jeopardy, and with it the future of the power-sharing administration, by a bitter row over implementing welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, which has left ministers facing a budgetary black hole estimated at £600 million (831 million euro).

Sinn Fein and the UK government are on opposing sides of the welfare argument and respective public statements indicated neither was in the mood for compromise.

Sinn Fein and the smaller nationalist party in the Executive, the SDLP, have vetoed the introduction of the last government's changes to the benefits system, claiming they will hit the most vulnerable in society.

But the UK government has insisted the reforms are necessary, and must be introduced if the rest of the Stormont House Agreement is to be implemented.

In a thinly veiled broadside aimed at Sinn Fein and the SDLP, British Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said "deficit deniers" who think they could "simply go on spending money without any regard to the consequences" represented a "real danger" to public services.

In an article in the Irish News newspaper, Ms Villiers said if some did not want Northern Ireland to be subject to national spending settlements then the alternative would be "complete fiscal autonomy".

"And I have one question for them," she added.

"Which taxes would rise, and by how much, to cover the transfer of money each year to Northern Ireland from the UK Treasury?"

She said it was time for Northern Ireland's leaders to make a choice.

"The current deadlock over welfare reform not only threatens the Stormont House Agreement but could also put the devolved institutions at risk," she said.

"No one should be in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation."

Sinn Fein's response indicated a meeting of minds was a long way off.

The party's Conor Murphy accused Ms Villiers of being in "denial".

"The present difficulties facing the Executive are the direct consequence of Tory austerity cuts and their attempts to impose further welfare cuts on the most vulnerable in society," he said.

"The British government is planning another £25 billion (34 billion euro) of cuts to public services and welfare yet Theresa Villiers continues to refuse to spell out the impact of these cuts on the people of the north.

"She is clearly in denial of the role of her government's austerity policies in provoking the crisis and there is no indication she is serious about addressing the key issues.

"The Tories have no mandate in the north for their cuts agenda.

"The local parties need to make it clear that Tory cuts to public services and the welfare state are unacceptable."

The fate of the Stormont House Agreement, which was hailed as resolving a range of disputes destabilising power-sharing in Belfast, was thrown into uncertainty after a bid to introduce welfare reforms fell in the Assembly last week.

Introducing the last Conservative/Liberal Democrat government's reformed benefits system in Northern Ireland, after a two-year delay, was a key plank of the deal.

The defeat of the Welfare Reform Bill, due to a Sinn Fein/SDLP veto, has now endangered other elements of the accord, such as the devolution of corporation tax powers, a major civil service redundancy scheme and new structures to address the legacy of the Troubles.

But it has also left the Executive facing a reputed £600 million funding gap this financial year.

That shortfall is in part a consequence of Treasury penalties for non-implementation of welfare reforms currently running at just under £10 million (13.8 million euro) per month.

Today's crucial meeting will be held at Stormont House. Ms Villiers and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan are due to attend.

Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson will also be there, along with the leaders of the other Executive parties, only a week after being admitted to hospital with heart problems.

While initially backing the welfare element of the Stormont House Agreement, Sinn Fein withdrew its support three months later, claiming that Executive-funded top-up schemes to protect claimants losing out under the new benefits system were not as comprehensive as it believed were envisaged in December's negotiations.

The DUP has accused its main partners in government of welching on the deal.

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