Belfast Telegraph

Theresa Villiers' warning of doom for Northern Ireland's devolved institutions

Continued talks deadlock 'threatens future of devolution'

By Liam Clarke

An air of gloom descended over the talks last night as the Secretary of State warned that the lack of progress on welfare reforms could "threaten the whole future of the devolved institutions".

The future of the Assembly has been hanging in the balance since the August murder of a man that police say involved IRA members.

But the institutions were already in turmoil because Stormont is overspending its budget on welfare, with Sinn Fein and the SDLP refusing to agree to changes to legislation.

As a result, Stormont is paying out proportionately more than England and the Treasury is claiming the surplus back. This has created shortages as the budgets of other departments are raided to meet the shortfall.

Theresa Villiers, who is chairing the crisis talks aimed at saving Stormont, said: "We didn't make any real progress on the welfare issues we discussed this morning. There is still a long way to go.

"It is crucial that the welfare and finance provisions of the Stormont House Agreement are implemented because if they are not, more and more money will continue to pour into an unreformed high-cost welfare system in Northern Ireland, leaving less and less for crucial frontline public services.

"That could threaten the whole future of the devolved institutions."

However, other issues - such as dealing with the past and paramilitary structures - seem to have gone better.

Insiders say that the paramilitary monitoring report commissioned by the Government should be available next Wednesday and, if it is positive in tone, the DUP may allow its ministers to take up their posts again.

If the report gives a more favourable picture than the Chief Constable - for instance, clearing the IRA leadership of all involvement - that could pave a way back into office for the DUP ministers.

If it is worse, they won't, and Sinn Fein will almost inevitably denounce the body.

Asked if the report could prompt a ministerial return, the DUP did not answer directly but said: "We eagerly await a report from the assessment panel which was set up to provide a full picture across a range of paramilitary groups with a view to assisting the talks process to deal with the issue of paramilitary and organised crime once and for all."

This suggests they will ask for further work against paramilitaries and a continued role for the assessment panel.

The all-party talks have a deadline of the end of this month.

If they fail, the Government is likely to take back some budgetary powers and legislate fairly quickly after that.

Speaking at the Tory Party conference, Pat Doherty of Sinn Fein dismissed the deadline and said more British money was essential.

However, Sammy Wilson of the DUP warned that nobody should expect an open chequebook.

"Everyone wants to see a successful outcome from those talks but we must factor in the latest in a long line of very clear statements from the Government that extra money will not be put towards welfare reform from London," he said..

"This is a reality check for everyone involved."

In August, former IRA member Kevin McGuigan was shot dead at his Short Strand home in Belfast. The Chief Constable said IRA members were involved, sparking the start of the Stormont political crisis. However, he also said the IRA was set on a peaceful path. DUP ministers pulled out of the Executive in the aftermath. An assessment panel has been set up to try to clarify the picture over paramilitary activity.

Belfast Telegraph


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