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Assembly could collapse if Sinn Fein throws out welfare reform, warns Peter Robinson

By Liam Clarke

Stormont could crash next Tuesday if the DUP forces a debate on welfare reform to go ahead.

Peter Robinson said that if the Welfare Reform Bill was not passed, Westminster must legislate over Sinn Fein's head.

The First Minister confirmed that a £700m public service voluntary redundancy scheme, intended to balance the books by cutting 20,000 jobs, would not be possible without the Bill being passed.

Arlene Foster, the newly appointed DUP Finance Minister, said: "It is not a case of Peter forcing the issue. This is the timeline we have to live within. We have run out of road."

She added that if the Bill was not passed next week "we don't have the money to go on".

"How can I present a budget which is missing £500m plus?" the minister asked. "I am not prepared to take money out of the health service to support a system when the whole health system is going to be in freefall."

Ms Foster was speaking alongside Mr Robinson and Mervyn Storey, the Minister for Social Development, who is responsible for welfare payments.

"We have to bring this matter to a conclusion," Mr Robinson said. "Arlene needs decisions to be taken on welfare. We would have a budget with considerably less difficulty if the Welfare Bill is passed. If there is a refusal to pass that Bill, it would cost hundreds of millions more, so I think that will concentrate minds."

Sinn Fein, backed by the SDLP, has refused to implement reform because of the impact on the poor. The Treasury's response is that Stormont must pay the shortfall. Mr Robinson said: "We have twice reached agreement with Sinn Fein, then Martin McGuinness took it to the ard chomhairle. He called me in on a Saturday with his tail between his legs and said he couldn't carry his colleagues with him."

Mr McGuinness has denied making any firm commitment, but, more recently, Sinn Fein agreed to the Stormont House Agreement, which set up a system to top up benefits. But it withdrew its support in March, saying the guarantees were not strong enough.

The Welfare Bill was criticised by Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, who said it "should not be brought before the Assembly".

"This should not be a crisis," he added. "The Executive parties should confront the source of these cuts - the Tory Government."

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has previously said her preferred option was to let the civil servants step in and set budgets of about 95% of the previous one in order to balance the books. That would probably collapse the Assembly by autumn.

Another option is calling an Assembly election, but Mr Robinson has said "nothing changes after the election because we won't go into government with Sinn Fein again until this issue is resolved".

Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party highlighted the stark choice facing politicians.

He said: "The choice now is either to implement a Northern Ireland version of welfare reform, with local flexibilities and modifications, or hand over its responsibilities and see the full GB version of welfare reform implemented."

Key dates as crisis deepens

May 19: Stormont business committee seeks recall of the Welfare Bill to the Assembly for its final reading. Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey produced a paper setting out a plan to implement welfare reform and circulated it to Executive parties.

May 20: Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to chair a meeting of the five Executive parties to discuss the way forward. The DUP is to take a view on whether the bill is likely to pass.

May 26: Likely date for debate on the Welfare Bill. Finance Minister Arlene Foster will have prepared two budgets. One will assume welfare reform has passed and a harsher one will presume it hasn't. The DUP will not support the second budget.

If there is no agreement, the DUP will propose enabling legislation to let Westminster make the changes. Whether or not this is passed, the DUP believes the UK Government will have to step in. Otherwise there will be no budget and civil servants will have to step in. If an election is called, the DUP will contest it but not enter government with Sinn Fein until reform is agreed.

Belfast Telegraph


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