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Villiers accused of 'giving ground' to the DUP ahead of talks on welfare reform

By Deborah McAleese

Theresa Villiers has been accused of "giving ground" to the DUP over welfare reform ahead of negotiations between the five main parties.

The Secretary of State said that the Westminster Government is prepared to legislate on welfare reform in Northern Ireland if Stormont's parties cannot agree their own package of changes.

Peter Robinson described the move as a "potential game-changer" for Stormont.

But Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said it would be a "huge mistake".

Following revelations of Westminster's "last resort action", the SDLP demanded to know what other ground has been "conceded" to the DUP.

"It is bad politics for London to give ground to the DUP before talks have begun or for London to think they can rewrite the Good Friday Agreement," the SDLP's Alex Attwood said.

"London must be clear with the other parties if other ground has been conceded to the DUP on suspension, exclusion or parades or any other area of the Good Friday Agreement," he added.

Speaking at the British Irish conference in Cambridge on Saturday, Ms Villiers said if the Executive could not reach agreement on implementing the budget and welfare aspects of the Stormont House Agreement, "as a last resort the Government will have to step in and legislate at Westminster for welfare reform in Northern Ireland".

The parties had agreed on a welfare reform deal last December, but there has been deadlock on the issue since Sinn Fein withdrew its support in March.

Peter Robinson welcomed Ms Villiers' speech as a "potential game-changer".

The DUP leader added: "There is no doubt that this statement will introduce a dose of reality to these negotiations and make a resolution more likely."

However, Deputy First Minsiter Mr McGuinness said it would be "a huge mistake for the British Government to attempt to impose its welfare cuts agenda over the heads of the Assembly and the Executive." The Sinn Fein man warned: "Any move by the British Government to impose its welfare cuts agenda over the heads of the Assembly and Executive will seriously undermine devolution and the political institutions."

Cross-party talks to begin tomorrow, in a bid to save the power-sharing institutions, will cover two issues - securing the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement - which includes welfare reform - and paramilitary activity.

Crisis at the Assembly was sparked by the recent murder of Kevin McGuigan. The ex-IRA man was killed in revenge for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard "Jock" Davison in May. Police said Provisional IRA members had a role in the murder. The Ulster Unionists withdrew from the Executive following the PSNI's assessment of the PIRA.

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