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Devolution's future at stake in welfare reform row: Theresa Villiers

By Liam Clarke

Theresa Villiers has warned that parties refusing to agree on welfare reform may have to answer for the collapse of Northern Ireland's power-sharing institutions.

"There's now a real risk that those taking a hard line against welfare reform could end up running the devolved institutions into collapse as collateral damage," the Secretary of State said in a pro-Union speech to the Tory conference yesterday.

"A return to direct rule would be a severe setback after everything that's been achieved."

The reference to parties taking a hard line was aimed at Sinn Fein and the SDLP, both of which have refused to implement the Stormont House Agreement concluded at the end of last year. As a result of the impasse, welfare changes implemented in England have not been applied here, with the Treasury continuing to use the older, more expensive, system and charging us the difference.

The deadlock has plunged Stormont deeper into debt and left it with a budget that cannot balance. Things are likely to come to a head by the end of the month - the deadline David Cameron has set - and after that civil servants would be legally obliged to step in order to keep ministerial spending within limits.

Ms Villiers insisted this was a real deadline and told delegates in Manchester: "Unlike last year, we don't have the luxury of endless hours of discussions stretching on and on until Christmas. What's at stake is not just the credibility of devolved government in Northern Ireland, but the survival of devolved government in Northern Ireland."

She also referred to Syriza in Greece, who Sinn Fein praised for defying austerity. But the Greek party then backtracked and the leadership ended up accepting terms that were worse than those previously offered. The majority compromising section then won a general election.

Rubbing the point in, Ms Villiers said: "One only has to look around Europe to see the problems that are caused when an administration cannot live within its budget, and the terribly harsh impact that can have on some of the most vulnerable people in society."

She also predicted that power-sharing would not survive such a shock and said: "Replaying that scenario in Northern Ireland would stretch political relationships well beyond breaking point."

Ms Villiers rounded on the Labour leadership team, focusing on leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, both of whom expressed pro-republican sympathies during the Troubles. Mr McDonnell even said that IRA bombers and gunmen should be honoured for their contribution to the peace process, though he has since retracted the comment and apologised for any offence caused.

Ms Villiers said: "I have to say that many will view with grave concern the fact that, as recently as August, the leader the Labour Party have just elected was asked five times in an interview to condemn IRA terrorism and five times failed to do so."

Turning to Mr McDonnell, she added: "While the shadow chancellor might have issued a carefully worded apology for the hurt caused by his comments on the IRA, I say it's time he retracted in full his call to honour IRA terrorists and admit that he was entirely wrong to have made that statement in the first place."

Meanwhile, new Government legislation on dealing with the past has been leaked and rejected as unacceptable by Sinn Fein. Gerry Kelly claimed the proposals would hide the Government's role in the Troubles.

It will make for fraught negotiations next week, when the assessment panel on paramilitary activity should deliver its first report.

Belfast Telegraph


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