Villiers: Stormont House Agreement must be enforced

NI parties assess Westminster results to determine prospects in next Assembly elections

Northern Secretary, Theresa Villiers said the Stormont House Agreement must be enforced. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Northern Secretary, Theresa Villiers said the Stormont House Agreement must be enforced. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Outgoing Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers has called on Northern politicians to press forward and implement the Stormont House Agreement.

As the Northern parties pore over the election figures and try to assess how the results might affect their prospects in next May’s Assembly elections Ms Villiers informed them that the immediate concern is to enforce the deal struck at Christmas.

British prime minister David Cameron is expected to announce on Monday whether Ms Villiers will be replaced or whether she will be reappointed and handed the challenge of trying to end the latest deadlock threatening the future of the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Sinn Féin, having initially accepted the deal, are refusing to put the Stormont House deal into operation unless it get guarantees that people on benefits in Northern Ireland will not be affected by the Conservatives’ welfare cuts.

Now that Mr Cameron has an overall, if slim, majority he is in a stronger position to push forward with the welfare changes.

Ms Villiers said at the weekend that it was important that the new British government “work with the other political parties on our shared goal of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy”.

“But at the heart of the issue here is the Stormont House Agreement. We want to see that implemented; it has got a generous financial package. Both the Executive and the government undertook obligations, it is now important for it to be implemented,” she told the BBC.

“I’m saying that the Stormont House Agreement needs to be enforced, it needs to be delivered, I think it was a balanced package, I think it is a big step forward for Northern Ireland and it comes with significant extra resources,” said Mr Villiers.

Sinn Féin already has served notice that it will continue to resist welfare reform.

Mr Cameron has a majority of just five seats but when the position of the speaker and two deputy speakers – who as per protocol generally don’t participate in votes – and the four abstentionist Sinn Féin seats take are taken into account that majority increases to nine seats.

But with deaths, illnesses and internal disaffection that happens over the lifetimes of parliaments that majority is likely to decrease and Mr Cameron may have to rely on support from the DUP which has eight seats.

First Minister Peter Robinson and his senior strategists are conscious that they have some bargaining power but not as much as they had wished for had the result been a hung parliament.

One senior DUP source said Mr Robinson would use that weight to try to win some concessions for Northern Ireland but he was doubtful that the party would be capable of shifting him on his position on welfare.

“Cameron has taken so many hits on welfare reform that it is unlikely he would back down now that he has an overall majority,” said the DUP insider. “Cameron and Robinson will have things to talk about but I’m not sure if welfare will be the way to go.”

Meanwhile, SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell, who retained his South Belfast seat, told the BBC’s Sunday Politics Show he will step down from the Assembly to concentrate on holding on to his Westminster seat. He said he would talk to party colleagues and “set processes in train” to find a replacement.