Belfast Telegraph

Peter Robinson: We need to change, or call an election

Robinson’s intervention on future of Assembly

By Liam Clarke

Stormont is no longer fit for purpose and cannot continue working in its current form, Peter Robinson has warned.

To read party leader reaction to the comments, click here.

And Northern Ireland will be financially crippled unless the welfare reform impasse is resolved, he added.

Writing exclusively for today's Belfast Telegraph, the First Minister delivered a dramatic intervention on the future of Stormont if there is no political agreement on welfare reform.

He warned that an election would be the only alternative if agreement cannot be reached quickly. He also called for a second take of the St Andrews Agreement.

"It is transparently untenable for the Assembly and Executive to be sustainable while carrying the cost burden flowing from a failure to follow the national government's welfare reform changes," he wrote, warning of thousands of jobs losses in the public sector.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph to discuss the article, he added: "We have now come against an issue that doesn't allow us to hang on with the present process at Stormont. The present process cannot survive the welfare reform issue.

"We have to deal with this. It is not the case that we can scrub along for another period of time."

Mr Robinson has called for early party talks to negotiate a second St Andrews Agreement.

The talks should, he said, have the involvement of the British Government and parties which are not on the Executive, including the Greens, the TUV, Ukip and NI21. The St Andrews Agreement was negotiated in October 2006 between the parties here and the British and Irish governments.

It paved the way for power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein. The price of agreement was an elaborate system of checks and balances which allowed one party to block the other and a system of mandatory coalition which left no significant party in opposition. Mr Robinson is now calling for "a streamlined Assembly, a reduction in the number of government departments and further normalising our arrangements with a recognised opposition".

He writes "our most recent problems also inescapably point to the absolute need for reform of Stormont's decision-making arrangements".

He reassured nationalists that he was not proposing a return to unionist majority rule.

"Our divided society will still require arrangements that have regard for the need of widespread support across the community," he said. Things have come to a head because of the failure of the Executive to resolve the welfare reform issue.

The British Government is introducing a new benefits system which will reduce the rate of increase in payments to claimants. Sinn Fein and the SDLP have used their joint veto at the Executive to block the changes although some concessions were negotiated.

Sinn Fein argues that the Executive should go to the Government and demand further concessions, but Mr Robinson believes this is futile.

He quoted a letter from Nick Clegg, the Deputy PM, which stated "there is no possibility of further negotiation on additional changes to these reforms".

Mr Clegg indicated that setting up a computer system to run our own benefits system would cost £1billion with programme changes amounting to £200-£300million each year.

He went on: "It would be unsafe to plan on an annual cost to Northern Ireland of IT and penalties much less than £1billion. In other words, we could face a potential 10% reduction in our annual budget for the failure to implement welfare reform."

"Absorbing such avoidable costs, with the consequent job losses of thousands of nurses, doctors, police, teachers and other public servants, is not a price Northern Ireland could afford to pay to maintain devolution.

"It would be fantasy politics to try," the First Minister warned.

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