North political situation grim, warns Theresa Villiers

Robinson wants to push through budget to test if Sinn Féin will sign up to welfare reform

Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers: “The situation looks increasingly grim. No resolution was found at this afternoon’s meeting and time is running out.” Photograph: David Young/PA

Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers: “The situation looks increasingly grim. No resolution was found at this afternoon’s meeting and time is running out.” Photograph: David Young/PA

 

Talks aimed at breaking the logjam that is threatening the Northern Executive and Assembly concluded at Stormont on Tuesday evening with the British government warning that the situation was “grim”.

The government adopted a rather more positive stance on the negotiations involving Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan which concluded without any agreement but with First Minister Peter Robinson threatening to force some form of resolution by pressing ahead with a budget.

Mr Robinson said his Minister for Finance Arlene Foster would seek to push a budget through the Assembly based on the Stormont House Agreement, notwithstanding that Sinn Féin has insisted it will not accept the welfare reform proposals.

“We believe we have come to the end of the road; that we are not prepared to fudge issues any further, decisions have to be taken,” said Mr Robinson.

Unsustainable shortfall

The First Minister said that without the welfare element of the agreement in place the budget would face an unsustainable shortfall of £604 million for the rest of this financial year.

In essence he was saying that the move would compel Sinn Féin and the SDLP to adopt the budget and its welfare proposals or else face the British government taking over responsibility for welfare and/or the permanent secretary of the North’s Department of Finance implementing a much-reduced budget.

“It requires either Sinn Féin and the SDLP on the one hand to live up to the agreement that they signed up to last December, or for the government to do what they alone can do and to implement those changes at Westminster themselves,” said Mr Robinson.

Ms Villiers highlighted the seriousness of the deadlock after the talks with the five parties. “The situation looks increasingly grim. No resolution was found at this afternoon’s meeting and time is running out,” she said.

“If the impasse on welfare reform is not resolved, then the whole Stormont House Agreement is in jeopardy, including the £2 billion [€2.75 billion] financial package and the new institutions on the past.”

‘Negative impact’

She said there was a possibility of “emergency budget provisions coming into operation by the end of July” which she warned would have “a negative impact on front line public services”.

“Implementation of the Stormont House Agreement is the only way to get things back on track,” she said.

Her comments and those of Mr Robinson amounted to a demand on Sinn Féin to sign up to welfare reform or see the potential collapse or suspension of the Stormont institutions.

Mr Flanagan, apparently in deference to Sinn Féin and the SDLP’s difficulties, took a more emollient approach. “There was a useful exchange which helped clarify the issues,” he said.

“There was agreement of the serious damage which would result from a failure to make progress, and that time was short. My sense from our discussion was that the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement offers a way forward,” he added.