The Stormont House Agreement will fall if Sinn Féin pull out of a deal on welfare reform, the North’s First Minister has said.
Republicans have said they will not support the proposed benefits legislation after accusing the DUP of reneging on commitments and failing to protect the vulnerable.
A deal was signed before Christmas involving the British and Irish governments and five parties at Stormont to resolve public spending disputes which had paralysed the devolved administration.
Peter Robinson said welfare reform was crucial.
“The Stormont House Agreement will fall because this is a key element of it.
“If the Stormont House Agreement falls, then we are back into a crisis.”
The agreement paved the way for a budget to be passed for Northern Ireland public services next year - including changes to welfare reform.
The issue has been a red line for Sinn Féin in their negotiations as part of their commitment to protecting the vulnerable.
Mr Robinson said nobody could have been in any doubt about the coverage of the additional entitlements to benefits decided at Stormont House.
He said extra money from the Stormont House Agreement was never going to cover the additional sums needed for welfare following cuts imposed by the Coalition at Westminster.
“This conundrum was always the same for every party in the Executive.
“We had an agreement, we put the figures down so that there was no doubt, nobody can be in any doubt what we agreed to.”
He added: “I have never seen such a dishonourable, ham-fisted statement as the one issued by Sinn Féin today.
“The DUP will implement every word and number in the Stormont House and Stormont Castle Agreements.”
The Assembly was due to legislate on welfare reform today. As part of the deal powers over corporation tax were due to be devolved from London to Belfast, allowing Northern Ireland to reduce the levy on business profits to compete for investment with the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Robinson said: “The consequences will be that the (Westminster) Corporation Tax Bill will not go forward. If this bill is defeated in the Assembly today it will have implications for our budget, the money to deal with restructuring of the public service will no longer be available to us.
“The Stormont House Agreement would fall because this is a key element of it.
“If the Stormont House Agreement falls then we are back into a crisis situation.”
He added: “They (Sinn Féin) have decided to bring the show to an end.”
3 ULSTER Welfare Lead
Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of reneging on commitments he said had been made in the Stormont House deal.
“At Stormont House the five parties agreed a series of measures to protect the vulnerable and safeguard current and future welfare claimants under the control of the Executive,” he said.
“However, the DUP have acted in bad faith and are now reneging on their commitments to protect the most vulnerable. It is their intention to provide only partial protection to current recipients of benefit and no protection whatsoever for future claimants.
“That is totally unacceptable. If the DUP want to strip benefits from children with disabilities, from adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick, or push children further into poverty, then they need to explain and justify that. Sinn Féin certainly will not accept that approach.”
Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey told the Assembly he was not moving the welfare reform legislation.
The reform has been delayed by over two years, primarily due to Sinn Féin's reluctance to sign up to measures it claimed would hit the most vulnerable.
The row appeared to have been resolved in December’s Stormont House political deal when the five Executive parties agreed to offer additional financial assistance to claimants from its own pockets.
Northern Ireland’s leaders had warned that the very future of the power-sharing Executive would have been under threat had the agreement not been reached – as multimillion-pound Treasury penalties for non-implementation would have been too much to shoulder.
The same welfare reforms that proved contentious in Great Britain were to be brought into Northern Ireland – among them the so-called bedroom tax, the £26,000 cap on benefit claims, Universal Credit, and the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment.
But the key difference was that parties in Northern Ireland had agreed to introduce a number of new schemes to ensure additional financial support was directed to those set to lose out by changes to the benefits system.
So while Northern Ireland would have maintained parity with the rest of the UK in terms of the relative cost to the British Treasury, claimants were set to benefit from a more generous system due to the added contribution direct from the Executive’s coffers.
The parties had agreed to provisionally set aside around £560 million over the next six years to provide top-up payments to thousands of claimants.
Sinn Féin now claims the DUP has gone against its word in regard to how those Executive-funded measures would work.
The Treasury had been imposing multimillion-pound penalties on the Executive for its long-standing failure to implement the reforms.
In total around £100 million has already been taken off the block grant in the last two years – to reflect the failure to save the Treasury what has been saved elsewhere in the UK – and £114 million will be cut in the coming financial year if the changes are not implemented.
Mr McGuinness said the party would now be seeking support for a contentious voting mechanism – a petition of concern – that would stop the legislation progressing.
“Until such times as the minister (Mr Storey) can produce a scheme for agreement which gives effect to the intent of the Stormont House Agreement by providing full protection for current and future claimants, Sinn Féin will not be in a position to support the Welfare Bill going through the Assembly.
“We are now pursuing a petition of concern.
“The DUP have attempted to effect Tory welfare cuts by subterfuge but at the heart of this crisis is the ideologically-driven attack on the welfare state by the Tory-led government in London.
“As we have repeatedly stated publicly, Sinn Fein will not be part of any agenda that punishes the most vulnerable in our society.”