Belfast Telegraph

Crisis talks in welfare reform row

Stormont's leaders have held crisis talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers on the destabilising row over welfare reform.

The discussions at Stormont House were the first involving the five Executive parties since Sinn Fein's shock decision to withdraw support from welfare legislation just hours before a final Assembly debate on Monday.

As widely expected, no breakthrough was achieved this evening and it is understood further talks will be held in the coming days.

Implementing the Government's changes to the benefits system is a key plank of December's landmark Stormont House Agreement.

Without the already long-delayed legislation passing, the whole deal would likely implode and the future of the powersharing institutions would be plunged into uncertainty.

The devolution of corporation tax powers to Belfast and new mechanisms to address the legacy of the Troubles would be in jeopardy while the Executive would unlikely be able to balance its books in the next financial year.

The latest row centres on whether Stormont-funded mitigation schemes designed to support those in Northern Ireland who lose out under the reformed UK welfare system will cover future claimants, not just existing ones.

Sinn Fein pulled support after alleging the DUP had acted in bad faith by proposing to limit the schemes to current claimants.

The DUP has insisted there had never been an agreement to support future claimants and said such a system would require another £286 million.

With the Government insisting no money is on offer from the Treasury to resolve the problem, the wrangle will have to be sorted between the five local parties.

A mass strike by public sector health, education, civil service and transport staff against spending cuts envisaged in the agreement will happen tomorrow.

Ahead of this evening's meeting, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed London Government imposed cuts were a "huge part" of the Executive's problems.

"They are, by their agenda, effectively crucifying this executive and making life very difficult for us to resolve these problems," he said.

While Mr McGuinness and DUP First Minister Peter Robinson travelled together to New York this week for a short trip to meet potential investors, doubts surround their planned meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on St Patrick's Day.

Former senator Gary Hart represented secretary of state John Kerry during the Stormont House Agreement negotiations before Christmas.

Mr Hart said: "The United States government continues to strongly support the Stormont House Agreement of December 23 2014 and urge all parties to reach an understanding on the scope of the agreement as it applies to welfare payments to citizens of Northern Ireland, so that a successful series of meetings planned for St Patrick's Day can go forward as planned in Washington."

Ms Villiers today described Sinn Fein's change of stance on welfare as disappointing but said she did not believe the devolved institutions were at the point of collapse.

"It is obviously a big setback and the suddenness of it is a concern given that Sinn Fein one week were very enthusiastic proponents of it and the following week suddenly they are pulling out of a fundamental part of it," she said.

"But I think it is very clear we are not looking at the imminent collapse of the institutions.

"This is a serious setback but we have to keep it in proportion.

"The implementation of these matters is never easy but it is time to get this matter resolved."

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