Belfast Telegraph

Stormont parties are given warning of Greek-style crunch

By Noel McAdam

Stormont parties face the danger of plunging Northern Ireland into a Greek-style crisis, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has warned.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, she insisted the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) hammered out between the five Executive parties will not work without implementation of welfare reform.

In her most trenchant language to date and in what will be seen as a rebuke for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, Mrs Villiers argued that without the benefits changes "the finances or the Executive simply do not add up".

And she made a clear a clear reference to the financial chaos facing Greece, warning the parties against "a path of reckless irresponsibility".

"Northern Ireland's leaders face a clear choice," she said. "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."

Last night, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams also warned that the "future of the political structures created by the Good Friday Agreement hangs by a thread" - but blamed Ms Villiers' government.

The Secretary of State sounded the alarm bells the day after the Assembly completed fast-tracking the so-called 'phantom' budget which is based on the assumption the benefit changes have been agreed.

But with Stormont about to begin its nine-week summer recess, the stalemate since Sinn Fein withdrew support for the SHA - which was reached just before Christmas - remains.

Nonetheless Sinn Fein gave the budget 'conditional support', which buys time for the parties and postpones a financial crisis, probably until the autumn.

Yet Mrs Villiers also took a side-swipe at Sinn Fein, which has maintained it is opposing the welfare cuts to protect the most vulnerable groups in society.

Mrs Villiers said: "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."

But she also defended the stance of the Government in London, which she pointed out continues to take account of special circumstances in Northern Ireland, with a per-head public spending boost around 23% higher than the rest of the United Kingdom.

And she said the total block grant given from Westminster to the Assembly has not been reduced in cash terms over the last five years.

She argued: "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."

But Mr Adams claimed last night that the Conservative austerity measures presented the "gravest threat yet to the political institutions".

"In the 17 years since it was achieved, the Agreement has faced many challenges but the determination of the British Tory Government, and of the unionist parties, to implement swingeing austerity cuts represents the gravest threat yet to the political institutions," he said.

"The British Tories need to be persuaded to agree a realistic funding for the Executive which delivers for citizens. Without a working budget this is not tenable."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph