Belfast Telegraph

Peter Robinson: This is a blatant U-turn, Sinn Fein have gone back on their word

The frustration is etched on the face of First Minister Peter Robinson as he considers the latest crisis to befall Stormont
The frustration is etched on the face of First Minister Peter Robinson as he considers the latest crisis to befall Stormont

By First Minister Peter Robinson

Many will share my sense of astonishment and anger at Sinn Fein's startling act of bad faith yesterday in U-turning on their agreement on welfare reform.

This isn't a matter of argument or opinion or conjuncture. The Stormont Castle Agreement is clear and cannot be questioned. It has been published and its terms are available for all to see. Sinn Fein signed up to a deal on welfare. They are now dishonouring that deal.

While welfare reform is not a policy of the DUP's making and our MPs voted against many of the worst aspects as it proceeded through the House of Commons, we have always sought to secure the best deal possible for people in Northern Ireland while at the same time being aware that every penny allocated to welfare enhancements reduces the funding of front line services such as health and education.

Since 2011, DUP Social Development ministers have been successfully agreeing flexibilities for Northern Ireland with HM Government. These opt-outs are the envy of every other part of the UK where welfare reform is being implemented with no alteration.

Sinn Fein previously agreed to proceed with the legislation at Stormont in 2013 on the basis of this NI version of welfare reform. Sinn Fein's high command in the Republic of Ireland refused to endorse this deal and republicans reneged on their agreement. So welching on welfare reform deals is nothing new to Sinn Fein.

The ensuing deadlock led to huge penalties being imposed on the block grant. Spending on public services in Northern Ireland has been deprived of £100m so far. This impasse ultimately threatened the very existence of devolution itself.

Last September, I wrote in this newspaper that the Assembly and Executive were unsustainable if we did not reach urgent agreement on how to proceed. Thankfully, resolution was finally reached in the form of the Stormont House and Stormont Castle Agreements in late December.

The Stormont House Agreement persuaded the Government to put in place a £2bn financial package which assisted in agreeing a Budget for next year and paved the way for the devolution of corporation tax powers. All of this was predicated upon progress on welfare reform and the agreement of a Budget.

True to our word, the DUP has been faithfully implementing every element of what we agreed at Stormont House. A Budget has been passed. Our MPs and peers have been overseeing the passing of corporation tax legislation at Westminster. And Mervyn Storey has been taking the welfare legislation through its various stages at Stormont. This positive progress undoubtedly changed the political atmosphere for the better. Yet Sinn Fein are now risking it all. Many will ask the simple question why?

Why, whenever Martin McGuinness and others have robustly defended the deal as being a triumph for the vulnerable?

Why, whenever the five-party agreement is a publicly available document are they now turning their back on it?

And why, whenever the details that Sinn Fein signed up to are printed in black and white are they trying to renegotiate it all over again?

Stepping away from the Government's version of welfare reform was always going to come at a cost but ensuring the 'bedroom tax' didn't affect tenants in Northern Ireland was, I believed, a price worth paying. So too was the creation of a supplementary payment fund to provide support for people hardest hit by welfare reform.

It was agreed to set aside £125m over six years for this fund. Sinn Fein are now demanding that an additional £286m - a total cost of £411m - be put in the fund.

Every extra pound which is placed into this supplementary payment fund has to be found from somewhere else in the Budget. It could be the money that pays for our schools, our hospitals or our roads. Every party which signed up to the Agreement was aware of that and it was for that very reason that the Agreement was detailed on paper so that no one could be in any doubt about what the spending envelope was.

Sinn Fein have shown themselves willing to criticise other parties who have moved outside of what was agreed. Indeed, that is why it is so difficult to comprehend the stance they have now taken because the details to prove who has been guilty of any bad faith are available to anyone who wishes to scrutinise them. I can make my position abundantly clear. I am willing to stand over every word and every number agreed at both Stormont House and Stormont Castle last December. An agreement has been made. And that agreement must be kept.

This is not the first time the word 'crisis' has been associated with Stormont. But be in no doubt Sinn Fein's bad faith will have very serious consequences.

This will impact on our Budget and could cost us several hundred million pounds.

The ability to reduce the rate of corporation tax, create jobs and grow our economy will be lost.

The very existence of Stormont itself could be in jeopardy.

After pulling back from the brink before Christmas, people were filled with renewed hope that their politicians would be able to get on with the job of governing Northern Ireland. People understand that we do so in difficult financial circumstances and that the system at Stormont is far from perfect. By performing this most spectacular of U-turns, Sinn Fein have betrayed the sense of optimism the Stormont House Agreement brought.

Read more:

Stormont crisis: Peter Robinson pulls out of Washington trip in wake of Sinn Fein's welfare bombshell  

Public services will pay as Stormont bids to keep order 

Stormont crisis: Why did Sinn Fein decide to vote against Welfare Bill? 

A cynical change of heart pours scorn on their claims to be party of government    

Sinn Fein stance could cost us millions 

What happened, and what could happen... the key questions answered 

Sinn Fein to oppose welfare bill: Peter Robinson slams Martin McGuinness' statement as 'dishonourable and ham-fisted' 

Stormont crisis looms over welfare 

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