Belfast Telegraph

Peter Robinson: I couldn't stand over the budget cuts

After Peter Robinson dramatically said Stormont was no longer fit for purpose in a Belfast Telegraph article, the First Minister sat down with Political Editor Liam Clarke to explore the issues he raised...

You suggest the present system can't endure without solving welfare reform. Why?

How would ministers react when a thousand million pounds was taken out of our budget? It is just not doable. A tenth of our budget would disappear from the spending of Executive. That would be a punishment to the people of Northern Ireland that I couldn't stand over. It would mean that the price for devolution would be too high and it would come about because people were not able to take the hard decisions that were necessary in government.

Surely the poor will suffer if you impose cuts?

Even under the new system the amount of money coming to Northern Ireland for welfare will increase by half a billion pounds over the next couple of years. So we are not talking about cuts in real terms.

When there are changes there are always winners and losers in that but there wouldn't have been the losers under the system that we offered to Sinn Fein because not only were we setting aside the bedroom tax for all our existing tenants but we were putting in place a £30m contingency fund to deal with areas which were going to be hardest hit.

When you take out £100m, £500m or £1,000m from our budget it comes out of services, it comes out of the cost of keeping staff there, and that will hurt the most vulnerable people in our society.

If you lose £1bn you are talking about the loss of at least 10,000 public servants. I don't want to go to the unions to say we are going to decimate the public service in Northern Ireland because difficult decisions couldn't be taken.

When would you want to start negotiations on St Andrews mark 2 and what would you go into them seeking?

I would start tomorrow if I could.

What would happen to the talks on flags, parading and the past?

The only thing that is likely to bring down the Assembly is the issue of welfare reform. I see that as the priority. I have no doubt that as soon as you talk about negotiations other people will have other things that they want to talk about and that is a matter for them to make their case.

When you talk about opposition, Sinn Fein suspect you just want to exclude them from power.

My interest and the interest of the party is having an outcome that sees an effective and efficient Assembly and Executive able to respond quickly to demands on the ground and doing the best business for the people of Northern Ireland. If you had an Executive which was all pushing in the same direction that would be very beneficial.

Are there any potential points of agreement between you and Sinn Fein on changes to the institutions?

Over the past couple of years we have talked to Sinn Fein about reducing the size of the Assembly and the number of government departments. I don't think there is an awful lot of difference between us on those issues.

What are you asking Sinn Fein and the SDLP to do on welfare reform?

They could take a pragmatic decision that although it is not in the interests of the people who they represent, the harm that will be caused by not accepting it is worse than the harm that will be done by accepting it. Therefore under protest we accept it as the lesser of two evils.

Another option is that if they don't use their veto we will do the heavy lifting along with those others in the Assembly who are prepared to take the hard decisions and we will put the legislation through.

The final option is central government could take back the power over welfare.

Why should Sinn Fein go into negotiations on St Andrews mark 2?

Negotiations provide an opportunity, in terms of welfare reform, for them to lock horns directly with the British Government on the issue. In the discussions which we have we can deal with the penalties and all those issues as well.

People have been speculating that you would retire soon. You seem to be putting forward a programme of work which would extend up to the general election.

It was good fun at the beginning, getting all of these questions about retirement. It is getting a bit tiresome now.

I am up for the job. I wouldn't be going forward with this otherwise. I have put it to the party officers and they unanimously believe that this is the right course to take.

I intend to move forward but there is a process within the party (to change the leader). If anyone thinks that anyone else would be better at carrying it through then God bless them. I have plenty of other things that I could be doing if they feel that somebody else is better equipped to carry out this job.

What next?

I would like to talk to the other parties before they take any final decisions on whether this is the right route. I'd add that if somebody comes along to me and says "this isn't necessary because here is a better alternative" I will look at that.

Sinn Fein say you should show a common front to the government to get the cuts reversed.

We have heard from the Prime Minister himself that there would be no further negotiations but still they argue that we should go to the Prime Minister. Martin McGuinness and I have both been to the Prime Minister.

We met together with the Deputy Prime Minister and he made it clear that there would be no negotiations.

The Government won't change its position on this. It can't, how can they give us a better deal than they are giving to people in Scotland or Wales or England where they are looking for votes? They would lose their heads if they did that.

Timeline: The long road to St Andrews

November: IRA announces it will talk about arms decommissioning. Devolution goes 'live' December 2.

June 7: The DUP makes solid gains against David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, which had been the biggest party, while Sinn Fein also makes gains.

August 6: Arms chief General John de Chastelain says the IRA has a plan to put arms "beyond use".

October 4: Police raid Sinn Fein's offices in Stormont investigating republican intelligence gathering leading to breakdown between parties .

October 14: Secretary of State John Reid suspends devolution.

September 26: Gen John de Chastelain announces his satisfaction that all the IRA's arms were now beyond use

October 11-13: At talks in St Andrews, Scotland, involving DUP and Sinn Fein, a deal is reached on basis of Sinn Fein accepting the PSNI and policing and justice powers being satisfactorily transferred to Stormont.

March 7: Assembly election sees DUP emerge as the largest party with 36 of the 108 seats and Sinn Fein second with 28.

May: The Assembly goes live again with the Rev Ian Paisley as First Minister and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

Robinson says Stormont is not fit for purpose and calls for a second take of the St Andrews Agreement.

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