Northern Ireland politicians as bad as the Greeks, says Theresa Villiers
The choice is clear: Implement the agreement or go down a path of reckless irresponsibility like other parts of Europe
Five years ago the UK was borrowing more than £150billion over and above what it generated in taxes. That figure represented the largest budget deficit in our peacetime history. We saw the deepest recession since the Second World War, with unemployment rising by over half a million.
There were two choices. We could have carried on spending and borrowing without any regard to the consequences, piling up levels of debt that we could never hope to repay.
Or we could do something about the situation by tackling the deficit, getting on top of our debts, and finding a way to live within our means as a country.
In 2010 we rightly chose the second of these options and embarked on a long-term economic plan to turn our country round. Five years on, it is clear that our plan is working.
The UK is now one of the fastest growing major economies in the world. We have halved the budget deficit. There are over two million more people in work, including over 40,000 in Northern Ireland. Unemployment has tumbled across the UK, falling for each of the past 27 months in Northern Ireland. Living standards are higher than they were in 2010, and rising.
This has only been achieved as a result of the sacrifice and hard work of people right across Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It has also needed a Government prepared to make a realistic assessment of the state of the economy and take difficult decisions to control spending.
But the job is not done. The deficit is still far too high. There are significant risks in the global economy that can still threaten our recovery, not least of which is instability in the eurozone.
It is essential that we stick to the long-term plan that has brought us this far and which will deliver our manifesto commitments to create full employment, reduce taxes for working people and ensure people working 30 hours on the minimum wage pay no income tax at all on what they earn.
Throughout these difficult times we have continued to take account of the special circumstances of Northern Ireland. Public spending per head is still some 23% higher here than the UK average. The block grant is actually higher in cash terms than it was five years ago.
The last spending review settlement asks the Northern Ireland Executive to make savings of around 1% a year - much less than almost every government department in London.
In addition, the 2013 Economic Pact confirmed that we are on course to deliver the £18bn capital investment promised by the last Labour Government. The Stormont House Agreement offers the Executive an extra £2bn of spending power, through a combination of new money and flexibilities from the Treasury that most parts of government would have bitten off our hands to access. At the same time, Northern Ireland cannot be immune from the kind of decisions that have had to be taken by responsible governments across the developed world over the last seven years since the crisis hit.
The Executive needs a workable budget that puts its finances on a stable and sustainable footing. That is what the parties signed up to in the Stormont House Agreement.
That agreement needs to be implemented in full. Welfare reform is a key part of this. Without it, the finances or the Executive simply do not add up.
Conservative welfare reforms are based on three clear principles - they reward work, continue to protect the vulnerable and they are fairer to taxpayers. Welfare should be there to support people when they need it; not be there to support a way of life.
Since 2010 the number of workless households has come down by over 670,000, to the lowest since records began. There are 50,000 fewer households where nobody has ever worked. The number of people on main out-of-work benefits is down by one million since 2010, to the lowest level since 1982. Figures last week showed that the proportion of individuals on low income is now at the lowest level since the mid-80s.
Our reforms are working -helping people to move away from dependence on benefits to independence, the chance of a job and the better life that goes with it. I believe Northern Ireland would benefit considerably from these reforms. Added to that, the 'top-ups' which the local parties have proposed as part of the SHA would deliver the most generous welfare system in the UK.
Northern Ireland's leaders face a clear choice. They can implement the Stormont House Agreement and tackle the hard choices of responsible government, making decisions that will help to build a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland. Or they can go down a path of reckless irresponsibility that leads to the kind of politics now playing out in parts of Europe.
The people who suffer most when governments cannot manage their finances are some of the most vulnerable in society, including those who depend on health services. This Government will do what is necessary to implement the agreement. I sincerely hope Northern Ireland's politicians do the same.