Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland poiltical crisis deepens as parties fail to reach agreement over welfare reform

By Liam Clarke

The situation at Stormont "looks increasingly grim" the Secretary of State has warned after talks to resolve the welfare crisis broke up without progress yesterday.

No plan was made for a future meeting.

However, the DUP said it will now propose a budget based on the assumption that welfare reforms have been implemented in a bid to resolve the bitter dispute that threatens Stormont.

Theresa Villiers issued the stark warning after chairing yesterday's meeting of the Executive parties, which was also attended by Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan.

"The situation looks increasingly grim," she said. "No resolution was found at this afternoon's meeting and time is running out.

"If the impasse on welfare reform is not resolved, then the whole Stormont House Agreement is in jeopardy, including the £2 billion financial package and the new institutions on the past.

"We now face the real prospect of emergency budget provisions coming into operation by the end of July, with a negative impact on front line public services.

"Implementation of the Stormont House Agreement is the only way to get things back on track.

"The Government is doing all it can to achieve this.

"The question is whether Northern Ireland's leaders are able to find a way to deliver on their side of the deal."

First Minister Peter Robinson, who had a heart attack just over a week ago, attended the summit and presented a plan for Arlene Foster, the Finance Minister, to present a budget that assumed the talks had cracked welfare.

He said the move - overshooting Northern Ireland's available funds by £600m - could compel opponents of the reforms, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, to change position. If not, it would force the UK Government to intervene to avert a financial meltdown and potential collapse of the power-sharing administration.

Mr Robinson said: "The SDLP and Sinn Fein have welched on a deal that they did last December.

"They have not been prepared to face up to the consequences of the decision they took last week."

The budget will happen within days, perhaps tomorrow.

"We take into account all the financial issues that came because of the Stormont House Agreement and we will offer that budget to ministerial colleagues and that is the only basis that we are prepared to go forward on. We are not prepared to make £604m of cuts to public services," the DUP leader said. He made it plain the DUP believed the time for renegotiation was over and a decision had to be made.

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy showed little enthusiasm, calling it a "fantasy budget".

Sinn Fein wants all the parties to join in demanding more money from the Government. It also wants to wait to see a mini-budget - planned in London for July 8 - to gauge how it will affect us.

"It is not going to be easy. The signs of political will, I have to say, are scarce," Mr Murphy said.

He said the British Government "is largely responsible for the crisis we find ourselves in".

Mike Nesbitt of the UUP said "Sinn Fein's position is not viable or tenable".

"People are generally talking about their commitment to making it work, but unless McGuinness and Robinson agree to make it work there is no prospect. You need a political will for anything to happen," he said.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "No credible minister or Executive can introduce a budget they know to be a sham. It makes a mockery of accountable government and will bring Stormont into further disrepute, if such is possible.

"The Treasury should intervene forthwith, otherwise it becomes a party to this farce."

Belfast Telegraph


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