The power-sharing administration in Belfast is facing a major crisis after a vital Assembly debate on implementing welfare reforms began without a last minute political deal.
The passage of the welfare legislation now looks doomed, due to the triggering of a contentious voting mechanism by Sinn Féin and SDLP.
The two parties have effectively secured a veto by signing a ’petition of concern’, because it means the Bill can only be passed with the support of a majority of both nationalists and unionist members in the House.
Finally introducing the Conservative/Lib Dem government’s welfare reforms in the North was a key plank of December’s Stormont House Agreement that had been heralded as resolving a range of destabilising disputes at the heart of the powersharing Executive.
Failure to introduce welfare changes will endanger other deals struck at Stormont House, such as the devolution of corporation tax powers and new structures to address the legacy of the Troubles.
But it will also pose a real existential threat to the Executive, as ministers will have failed to remove the burden of Treasury penalties for non-implementation, which are currently running at around £10m (€14m) a month.
The Democratic Unionists have warned that failure to pass the welfare legislation will leave the Executive having to bridge an unsustainable £600m (€845m) funding gap.
While initially backing the welfare element of the Stormont House Agreement, Sinn Féin baulked three months later, claiming that Executive-funded top-up schemes to protect claimants set to lose out under the new benefits system were not as comprehensive as it believed were envisaged in December’s accord.
The DUP has accused its main partners in power-sharing of welching on the deal.
DUP First Minister Peter Robinson was absent from the debate after suffering a suspected heart attack.
His party colleague, Social Development minister Mervyn Storey, said: “I firmly believe that the time for talking is now over. I believe that now is the time for decisions, for getting on with the implementation of reforms.
“Unfortunately the fiscal realities for Northern Ireland is that we cannot afford a more expansive and expensive welfare system than the rest of the UK.
“If we spend more on benefits the harsh reality is that we have less to spend on schools, on hospitals and all other public services that rely on it.”
He said additional protections had been put in for the most vulnerable while ensuring work paid for those who were able to.
The North Antrim Assembly member claimed all five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive signed up to the Agreement.
“They want, like Pontius Pilate, to wring their hands, to almost cleanse their consciences that somehow they had not signed the dotted line.
“It was a five-party agreement. I believe that we have now obtained the balance between what in an ideal world we would like to do and what we can afford to do.”
Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness blamed Tory cuts for the impasse.
“The current crisis has come about solely through the actions of the British Government, it could only be resolved by the actions of the British Government,” he said.
“They have attacked the most vulnerable in society, slashed the budget for public services and undermined the credibility of these institutions.
“There is still time for the parties and the British Government to deliver a new budget that delivers.
“If a choice has to be made to stand side by side with the Tories or stand up for the people here, for our economy or public services, I know what side Sinn Féin will be on.”
The Green Party leader Steven Agnew, the party’s only assembly member, signed the petition of concern.
SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly said the party’s concerns about the welfare legislation had not been listened to.
She said they would defend those most in need.
“We are fed up with the side deals and the bad grace that often exists between Sinn Féin and the DUP and that we all have to suffer from.”
Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs said the old benefits system that had been replaced in the rest of the UK was ``costly and complicated''.
“We do have choices,” he told MLAs. “If this Bill is not approved we will be the only part of the UK using the old benefits system, there will be less funds in many other public areas.
“Let’s be clear – there’s no money tree, there’s no going back asking for more money, we’ve been there lots of times over the past three years.
“There were the crunch talks around Christmas last year and we got the offer of a settlement at that stage, so if we do not approve this Bill there will be even less money for health, less money for education and less money for departments and other publicly funded bodies.
“If this Bill is approved, the potential of further penalties and further unplanned departmental cuts will be averted.”