Public services in Northern Ireland will run into “significant problems” by September if there is no agreement between its parties about the scale of welfare cuts required to stay within budget, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has warned.
“That is why it is hugely important that they find a way through,” she told the House of Commons NI affairs committee, though she emphasised the Conservative government’s lack of desire to take control of welfare rules in the North.
Echoing DUP First Minister Peter Robinson’s warnings last week that the NI Assembly and the Executive may not survive until next year’s election, DUP MP Ian Paisley asked if the Northern Ireland Office was “preparing for the worst-case scenario”.
Replying, Ms Villiers said: “I don’t think we are at that point yet. The situation is grave; there is a threat to the continued effectiveness of the institutions and even a threat of potential collapse. But we are not there yet. It is certainly possible to resolve this dispute.”
Criticising Sinn Féin and the SDLP, she said it was important both were “able to deliver on the undertakings” they gave at the Stormont House Agreement – one that Sinn Féin “had championed”.
“Ultimately, there will come a time when the blocking of welfare reforms means so much strain on other departments that it will be felt by vulnerable people depending on public services,” she told MPs.
Gently chiding Ms Villiers, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said she appeared to be under “a bit of a misunderstanding”, since the SDLP’s opposition was based not on the Stormont House deal, but rather differences that emerged later. “The difficulty appears to be that the devil is in the detail.”
Replying to questions, the Secretary of State emphasised the UK treasury would not give more money to the North for a more generous welfare system than the one existing in the rest of the UK, but the £2 billion offered during the Stormont talks remained on the table
However, she dampened images of looming political chaos expressed by some, saying: “The situation now is very different to situations when the devolved institutions were suspended in the past.”
She added: “The only thing that would trigger an election would be resignations by the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister and a refusal by their parties to nominate a successor. Then we would face the question of whether it was possible to build a new administration . . . There isn’t any legislative route simply to suspend the institutions.”