Stormont cannot survive without welfare reform, Foster warns

Assembly adopts DUP Minister for Finance’s ‘fantasy’ budget despite massive shortfall

 DUP Minister for Finance Arlene Foster. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.

DUP Minister for Finance Arlene Foster. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times.

 

The Northern Executive and Assembly cannot survive without welfare reform, the DUP Minister for Finance Arlene Foster has warned, during the passing of the so-called Stormont “fantasy” budget.

The Northern Assembly adopted the budget for the remainder of this financial year, despite the fact that in the absence of a deal on welfare it will be under-funded by an estimated £600 million (about €846 million).

Ms Foster decided to press ahead with her budget as it will allow time for the deadlock over welfare to be broken.

However, Ms Foster said that, without a deal on welfare, “you could see the collapse of devolution altogether”.

The final stage of the budget bill was passed by 60 votes to 19, with the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance Party ensuring the bill was carried.

The SDLP and UUP members in the chamber opposed the bill, with Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, Independent John McCallister and the Green Party’s single MLA Steven Agnew also voting against it.

Stormont House Agreement

A deal on welfare was achieved in the Stormont House Agreement last Christmas.

However, Sinn Féin subsequently altered its position and said it could no longer support the deal, because it did not provide sufficient supports for welfare recipients.

The SDLP also opposed the welfare element of the agreement.

The resultant impasse over welfare is holding up the rest of the Stormont House Agreement, including the devolution of corporation tax powers to Stormont, £2 billion (about €2.8 billion) in grants and borrowing powers, a civil service redundancy or “voluntary exit” scheme and new bodies to support victims and survivors of the Troubles.

Today’s vote is expected to put off to the late summer or early autumn the Northern Executive and Assembly’s next financial crisis point.

It also provides time for the North’s parties to assess how next week’s special budget from British chancellor George Osborne will impact on Northern Ireland.

Foster address

Ms Foster told the Assembly that it was not feasible for the Executive and Assembly to function in the face of a forthcoming £600 million deficit.

“If there is no welfare reform there is no voluntary exit scheme, there is no money for the past, there is no sustainable budget, there is no Stormont House Agreement . . . there is no corporation tax, there is no Assembly and there is no Executive. That is how serious this is.

“If we do not implement welfare reform then all of the other things that we talked about here today are by the way. So we need to get real and put this behind us and implement welfare reform.”

Sinn Féin repeated its call for a united front to resist what it has described as austerity measures by the British government.

Party member Conor Murphy said: “The approach the British government has taken has damaged the vulnerable.

“They are damaging the working poor, restricting our ability to provide frontline services and it will undermine any prospect of economic recovery for the people in this part of Ireland.”