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Crunch talks continuing over welfare stalemate

By Liam Clarke

The Secretary of State is chairing intensive political talks today as gloom deepens over the future of the Assembly.

Theresa Villiers and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described yesterday's discussions to resolve the political stand-off over welfare reform as "positive".

But Ms Villiers also warned: "Failure to resolve the current dispute puts the whole Stormont House Agreement package in jeopardy and would see the Executive increasingly unable to deliver on its priorities for the people of Northern Ireland."

However, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said his confidence that a last-minute deal will be struck was "zero".

The DUP has secured a vote on welfare reform on Tuesday but Sinn Fein has vowed to block it unless major protections for benefits claimants are offered.

First Minister Peter Robinson has claimed the Executive is obliged to publish a budget by next Friday, and the impasse could collapse Stormont within days.

If Stormont does not make a deal on welfare reform before that, there will be a hole of more than £500m in the public finances as well as other deductions.

A massive redundancy scheme to reduce the public sector by 20,000 jobs and other financial plans are dependent on borrowing money from London. This won't happen unless the budget is passed. Mr Robinson said parties opposed to reform "needn't whinge and moan and howl at the Moon that they don't like what the Tories are doing" unless they could offer a viable alternative.

But Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness said he did not "jump to ultimatums". He added there "appears to be some appetite for people working to see if we can find a way through, but it has to be on the basis of how we do protect the most vulnerable in society".

Despite the yawning gap between the two main parties, Ms Villiers continues to urge progress without offering more money to plug the gap.

Mr Robinson wants Westminster to take back welfare powers if agreement cannot be reached in time. The Government is reluctant to do this, but may have no choice. An interim step would be for Civil Service accounting officers to come in and set budgets, top-slicing all departments.

Belfast Telegraph


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