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Theresa Villiers: Parties still far apart on key issues

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

By Noel McAdam

"Substantial differences" remain between Stormont's main parties at the end of the second week of talks.

That was the verdict of Secretary of State Theresa Villiers as discussions broke up at teatime yesterday.

There was agreement to resume a third week on Monday, and while Mrs Villiers said all five parties involved recognised the need to find solutions, "substantial differences remain".

One source said some parties had sent "c-list teams" to some of this week's talks sessions. "There is still a sense of a lack of real engagement," the source added.

None of the parties has made a public statement on the state of the talks this week and the Northern Ireland Office has ceased issuing daily summaries.

Meanwhile, a senior civil servant has promised to double-check if a DUP minister sanctioned contact between a Stormont department and the NIO on welfare reform - one of the key issues at the talks.

Andrew Hamilton, temporary permanent secretary at the Department of Social Development, confirmed it has shared information with the NIO on plans to introduce welfare reform.

The DUP has made clear it would accept Westminster taking back control over welfare payments if the long-delayed reforms issue cannot be resolved at the current inter-party talks.

And Ms Villiers has made clear the Government would be prepared to legislate to take back the powers as a last resort.

Mr Hamilton told the committee which monitors the DSD that the sharing of information had been "an operational matter" and as such had not required a decision by the minister.

But, questioned by MLAs, he said he would double-check if there had any involvement by the DUP's Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey, who like other DUP ministers is taking up position and resigning on a weekly basis.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey, who chairs the committee, asked on whose authority the decision to share information with the NIO had been taken.

Officials also told the committee that if welfare reform was agreed in the talks, it will have to be fast-tracked through the Assembly.

Belfast Telegraph


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