Belfast Telegraph

Robinson 'would seek London deal'

Stormont's First Minister has said he will seek an Assembly vote on handing welfare powers back to London if Sinn Fein refuse to implement reforms of the benefits system.

Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson insisted that, if his republican partners in the Executive refused to deal, an intervention by the UK Government would be the only way of preventing the collapse of the powersharing administration in Belfast.

"We have no money tree in the back yard, there is no additional money coming to us for welfare, we have to take those decisions," he said.

"If we don't take those decisions then I think it is incumbent on the Government in London to take back those powers, to implement welfare reform themselves - the alternative would be for the Assembly to fall."

The impasse over the non-implementation of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland is heading toward a crunch, with a looming make-or-break in-year review of the Executive's budget next month.

Despite agreeing to introduce the changes to the benefits system in December's Stormont House political deal, Sinn Fein subsequently baulked at the move, claiming Executive-funded top-up measures to support claimants losing out were not as comprehensive as they had envisaged.

The DUP presented a final set of proposals on the top-up schemes to Sinn Fein yesterday and is awaiting the party's response.

Mr Robinson, who has accused the republicans of welching on the deal, said mounting multi-million pound Treasury penalties for non-implementation, which are accruing at a rate of £2 million a week, will render the Executive unsustainable in the wake of June's budgetary 'monitoring round'.

He said this would force a senior civil servant to take control of the Executive's purse strings, but with a restriction that only 75% of last year's annual spend could be spent this year. The DUP leader said in such circumstances funds would soon run dry and the Executive would collapse, forcing a return to direct rule.

He said the only way of avoiding that scenario playing out would be either Sinn Fein finally agreeing to implement the reforms ahead of June monitoring, or the Government stepping in to do it on the Executive's behalf. He said in the latter circumstance, the reforms would be introduced in the first instance without the accompanying Stormont support measures.

Mr Robinson stressed that the UK government retained the right to legislate on any matter in the UK. He acknowledged that convention dictated the Prime Minister should seek the support of a devolved institution before intervening on an issue under its control, but expressed confidence a majority of Assembly members would vote for the step.

The 'petition of concern' Assembly voting mechanism would enable Sinn Fein to effectively block any motion calling for intervention, even if it was backed by a majority of MLAs, but Mr Robinson predicted the Government would still look at the raw voting numbers, to assess where most support lay.

"I suspect a majority of Assembly members would approve the Government making those changes rather than the Assembly falling," he said.

"It would be an unusual move made necessary by the inability of Sinn Fein to make difficult decisions."

Mr Robinson said he still retained hope that an agreement to implement the Stormont House deal could be reached.

"If no agreement is reached by Sinn Fein then clearly we can take that to the Assembly and ask them, rather than punishing people with 25% cuts to public services (if a civil servant took charge) because we haven't got an agreed budget, then I would have thought the Assembly would want to vote for the Government to take back that power.

"They mightn't be able to get an agreement on a cross-community basis (due to a petition of concern) but I think the Government would want to take into account where the majority were on those issues."

He said the Government could still act in the face of a Sinn Fein proposed petition of concern.

"The Government always has its own decision to take and it would be a very strong view if a majority of the Assembly were prepared to say 'take this decision, we can top it up afterwards ourselves, but take the decision to get us over this deadlock'," he said.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers earlier insisted the time had come for the region's leaders to deliver their side of the Stormont House Agreement.

Ms Villiers said the Government had lived up to its commitments, such as offering extra financial support to ministers in Belfast and passing legislation to devolve corporation tax, and now it was the turn of local politicians to make good on their pledges.

"We are doing our bit," Ms Villiers said.

"Now it is time for the parties in the Executive to deliver and agree on their side of the deal because that is essential for an effective executive."

She rejected any suggestion that the negotiation on welfare could effectively be rendered meaningless by further multi-billion pound cuts to the UK's benefits system envisaged by the Conservative government.

"It's important for the Stormont House Agreement to be implemented," she said.

"Yes, there are further welfare changes to be made in the future but again the choice will be open to the Northern Ireland Executive in terms of how they respond to them."

Yesterday, Sinn Fein Assembly member Daithi McKay said his party was committed to the "full implementation" of the Stormont House Agreement.

"Sinn Fein is committed to achieving the full implementation of all the outstanding issues of the Stormont House Agreement, including welfare, to ensure the agreed protections are in place for children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick and large families," he said.

"Work is continuing on all of these issues. A much greater challenge to the Executive comes from the £25 billion in further cuts promised by the Tories which would result in a huge hole in the budget.

"All of the Executive parties need to work together to develop a common approach to deal with the challenges presented by the British government's austerity agenda."


From Belfast Telegraph