Welfare reforms push Stormont to breaking point

Peter Robinson has warned that devolved bodies could collapse if an agreement is not reached



Northern Ireland’s devolved bodies face the prospect of collapsing next week, according to the first minister.

Peter Robinson made the comments after the DUP opted to table a vote on the Welfare Reform Bill at Stormont next Tuesday.

In March, Sinn Fein appeared to do a u-turn on welfare reform, pulling its support for the measures that had been a central part of last December’s Stormont House Agreement.

In deciding not to support the measures, deputy first minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of having ‘acted in bad faith’ and of ‘reneging on their commitments to protect the most vulnerable.’

Following Sinn Fein’s decision, the then-DUP finance minister Simon Hamilton warned that a failure to implement welfare reforms would leave a £500 million black hole in Northern Ireland’s finances.

In an attempt to bring the issue to a head, social development minister Mervyn Storey will next week bring the Welfare Reform Bill back to the assembly alongside a new implementation plan.

Making the announcement yesterday, Peter Robinson warned that should the Assembly fail to pass the necessary legislation he would formally ask Theresa Villiers, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, to take back direct control of welfare policy in Northern Ireland.

Robinson warned that if she refused to do so, the devolved institutions would likely collapse.

In attacking any move to pass control over welfare back to Westminster as simply ‘unacceptable’, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy has made clear his party’s belief that the bill ‘should not be brought before the Assembly.’

He explained:

“The challenges facing the Executive have been created by Tory austerity and their agenda of punishing the poorest in society.

“No one in the Assembly stood on a platform of welfare cuts.

“This should not be a crisis within the Assembly or the Executive. Instead, the Executive parties should stand together and confront the source of these cuts, the Tory government.”

He continued:

“It is a tactically wrong move by the DUP who appear to be responding to pressure and demands from the Tories in London.

“Instead we should develop a common position within the Executive and with the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies in opposition to Tory austerity.”

The moves come after UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt used a meeting with David Cameron on Monday to warn that the UK government must not allow the devolved bodies to collapse over welfare reform.

Commenting on the developments Ms Villiers, who is expected this week to meet with the parties in Northern Ireland, warned that the devolved bodies are at risk in the event of a failure to reach agreement on welfare.

She went on:

“I’ve said repeatedly that it’s crucial the parties resolve the welfare reform impasse and press ahead with implementing the Stormont House Agreement, which includes putting the Executive’s finances back on a sustainable footing for the future.”

In his assessment of the situation, BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent Gareth Gordon has painted a less than positive picture of what lies ahead.

Assessing the situation he observed:

“If the DUP carries out the threat to bring the welfare bill back to the Assembly then it will surely fall, short of a Sinn Féin about-turn of mammoth proportions.

“What the secretary of state will do is less clear. Taking control of welfare, as Peter Robinson wants, is unlikely to be her first choice.

“Her meetings with the party leaders this week could be fraught, And possibly fruitless as well. This may still drag on and on.

“In the short term, the head of the civil service could direct that an emergency budget be drawn up of up to 95 per cent of the real budget.

“But that is a sticking plaster. Short of political agreement, of the Stormont House variety or something else, the prospects for Stormont look bleak.”

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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