Talks to resume as Stormont crisis looms

Peter Robinson warns Northern Executive and Assembly could collapse next week

Talks between the Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers and the North's five main parties concluded today without agreement on how to break the deadlock over welfare reform and amid more talk of "crisis".

With First Minister Peter Robinson warning that the Northern Executive and Assembly could collapse next week, Ms Villiers met senior representatives from the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance at Stormont to examine how to end this latest political logjam.

The parties agreed to engage in "intensive further work" to try to find a way of implementing the Stormont House Agreement, which was agreed at Christmas but stalled in March after Sinn Féin refused to implement the welfare reform element of the deal.

A sequence of events is due to be set in train next week that could result in Stormont being unable to function.


Welfare Bill

On Tuesday the DUP Minister of Social Development,

Mervyn Storey

, is due to attempt to push the final stage of the postponed welfare Bill through the Assembly. Sinn Féin had pledged to veto that move through a mechanism called a petition of concern. If this happens, as is likely, Mr Robinson has said he will ask the British government to take back responsibility for welfare. Again, Sinn Féin will oppose such a move, while Ms Villiers hasn’t so far displayed any inclination to go down that road.

In tandem with this dispute, Mr Robinson said yesterday that the Northern Executive was legally required to publish a budget by Friday of next week. However, if the Stormont House Agreement is not enacted, there will be a £500 million budget shortfall, he said.

If the Executive can't then agree, one possibility is that the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance will be asked to oversee a much reduced budget.

Against such uncertainty, Ms Villiers met party representatives yesterday. She said the talks were “constructive”, while acknowledging the possibility of breakdown.

“If it is implemented, the Stormont House Agreement [SHA] will enable us to take significant steps forward on key issues, such as the Executive’s budget, addressing the legacy of the past and making devolution work better,” she said.

“Failure to resolve the current dispute puts the whole SHA package in jeopardy.”

Mr Robinson said that parties who rejected the welfare changes “needn’t whinge and moan and howl at the moon that they don’t like what the Tories are doing” unless they could come up with their own workable and “legally competent” alternative proposals.


Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he did not “jump to ultimatums”, but added that he was prepared to work in the coming days to try to “avert a major crisis”.

“If proposals are brought forward which include protections for the most vulnerable, as agreed by the parties at Stormont House, then we will support it,” he said.

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said it was clear "that we are in a critical situation which requires strong political leadership from the British government and the Executive parties". Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said the standoff was a "proper crisis".

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times