Belfast Telegraph

Foster warns of dire future if ongoing impasse over welfare can't be resolved

By Liam Clarke

Stormont is facing a budget black hole of almost £3bn with talks to resolve the welfare crisis threatening the Assembly's existence far from being resolved.

Talks to resolve the crisis broke up again yesterday without any agreement and it is now likely that Sinn Fein will attempt to stop the Welfare Bill debate scheduled for Tuesday.

The urgency of the situation was renewed yesterday after Finance Minister Arlene Foster unleashed a "nuclear budget" on other ministers.

The memo reveals that if welfare reforms are not passed Stormont's deficit would quickly mount to £2.8bn circumstances - £600m in the next financial year alone. The overall cut would be 20%, a fifth of our current spending.

A senior member of Sinn Fein attempted to suggest last night that the DUP and his own party are closer than ever to reaching a deal over welfare reform. However, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he had heard it all before.

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy told the BBC's The View: "We aren't that very far away in terms of narrowing down the groups that have to be dealt with, and trying to find the resources to do that - if there's a political will to do that."

However, he said the Conservatives were seeking further 'in year' cuts, something he said was "crippling the Executive".

But Mr Wilson said: "We had an agreement before Christmas. Sinn Fein signed up to it, then walked away because they feared the consequences."

Meanwhile, a divided SDLP is to meet today to decide whether to back Sinn Fein if the republican party decides to veto the Tuesday's debate on welfare reform. Sinn Fein would need SDLP support to launch a petition of concern.

"We will make a collective decision and I believe we will all stick to it. There are differing views at present," said SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly.

Ms Foster has said that she would produce two budgets, a "happy circumstances" budget in which welfare reform was passed and the present "nuclear" one where it isn't and all departments have to be top sliced. The nuclear budget is so harsh because low interest loans offered under the Stormont House Agreement last year would be withdrawn.

Mrs Foster, in her paper, stated that under legislation, income received such as planning fees and EU farm payments could not be spent. This would contribute to the eventual £2.8bn shortfall.

"If the Welfare Bill falls next Tuesday the people of Northern Ireland will be facing into a very dire future with the Budget that we know is in front of us," Mrs Foster told UTV.

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