Deal urged on North's welfare dispute

Deal urged on North's welfare dispute

The UK and Irish governments have urged political leaders in the North to intensify efforts to resolve the welfare dispute that has put the future of power-sharing at risk.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan stressed the importance of reaching an agreement in the coming weeks.

Fears of an imminent crash of Stormont’s coalition administration receded this week after the Assembly agreed a budget plan for the rest of the financial year.

But there is currently a £600 million hole in that spending plan and yesterday’s vote at Stormont has effectively only pushed the crunch point a bit further down the tracks.

The majority of the in-year shortfall is due to the failure by local politicians to implement December’s Stormont House Agreement – a stalemate caused by Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s refusal to introduce the UK Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.

The logjam has put the rest of the measures contained in the Stormont House deal between the five Executive parties and the British and Irish governments on hold.

Those include the devolution of corporation tax powers to Belfast, access from the Treasury to £2 billion of additional spending powers, a major civil service redundancy scheme and new institutions to deal with the thorny legacy of the Troubles.

Ms Villiers and Mr Flanagan attended a Somme commemoration event in Belfast today.

Afterwards they commented on the pressing need to resolve the welfare stalemate.

“It is important for the Stormont House Agreement to be implemented in full so the next priority has to be resolution of the dispute on welfare,” said Ms Villiers.

“Welfare reform was a crucial part of the agreement, without implementation of the welfare provisions of the agreement, the budget that has just been passed isn’t workable and if you don’t have a workable budget then ultimately that starts to have a very negative impact on public services.

“So it is more important than ever for the parties to re-double their efforts to get through the welfare blockage. I will be working with them on that in the days and weeks to come.”

Mr Flanagan added: “There is a window of opportunity over the next few weeks for the five party leaders to intensify their engagement.

“The budget has now been passed and accepted. There is a lot more work to be done. But where there is a will, there is a way – and if there is the political will on the part of all five party leaders in the Executive, a way forward will be found.

“All parties have got to engage now in a way that they haven’t in the past.”

The minister said the Irish government is standing by to assist if required.

“I remain available at very short notice to assist and help and encourage in any way that the circumstances deem appropriate,” he said.

The outcome of Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget next week could have significant implications for the future of the agreement, with further in-year cuts unlikely to be conducive to a resolution.

The prospect of discord as the loyal order marching season reaches its height in mid-July also has the potential to cast a shadow over political negotiations.

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