Stormont crisis renewed
Stormont crisis renewed


Legislation on welfare reform looks to be rejected by the Stormont assembly on Tuesday after the SDLP said its 14 assembly members would be joining Sinn Fein in supporting a nationalist ‘petition of concern’ to stop the bill.

Sinn Fein had urged the Stormont executive parties to stand united against the new Tory government in London as the DUP threatened to hand control over welfare back to it.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said his party “remains committed to negotiating with the executive parties and the British government” on welfare reform, but criticised “DUP stand and deliver politics”.

“Parties here are faced with an artificial deadline and a crisis that could and should be averted,” he said.

Despite agreeing to introduce the changes in December’s Stormont House political agreement, Sinn Fein backed out of the deal after discovering that ‘top-up’ measures to support benefits claimants were not as comprehensive as they had been led to believe.

Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy welcomed the SDLP’s decision, calling on the DUP to withdraw the bill. However, unionists reacted with anger.

DUP leader Peter Robinson said the SDLP was “incapable of taking hard decisions”, insisting Tuesday’s debate “shall proceed” and challenging opponents to table their own financial proposal to pass on the cuts.

“Not one party, in the three days that followed, has brought forward a single amendment. This demonstrates that there is no alternative to the minister’s proposal,” he said.

The welfare reform issue had “run out of road”, he said, and unless the legislation was passed there would be no funds to sustain the assembly. He said he was also unwilling to table a budget which made provision for the financial penalties imposed by London over the ongoing impasse.

“Clearly in those set of circumstances you wouldn’t have a budget for Northern Ireland and the [British] government would be forced to intervene at that stage,” Mr Robinson said.

Alliance leader David Ford branded the SDLP and Sinn Fein decision “reckless” and said Stormont faced “an impossible budgetary position”.

“It is not possible to overestimate the seriousness of this situation. This is the worst crisis that the assembly has faced in the past five years. The future of Northern Ireland’s economy and political institutions are at stake,” he said.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the Six Counties “cannot afford to keep on lurching from one political crisis to another”.

“If Sinn Fein want to change the Stormont House Agreement, then they should come forward with costed proposals as soon as possible.”

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness blamed the Conservative government for being behind the crisis. It had made an “ideologically-driven assault on public services and the most vulnerable in society”, he said.

“We are in resolution mode and if proposals are brought forward which include protections for the most vulnerable, as agreed by the parties at Stormont House, then we will support it,” he said.

“But we will not support a welfare bill which does not contain protections for the vulnerable and will not be part of any agenda which punishes the poor.”

Party colleague Conor Murphy said returning welfare powers to London would be unacceptable to Sinn Fein.

“The challenges facing the executive have been created by Tory austerity and their agenda of punishing the poorest in society - no-one in the assembly stood on a platform of welfare cuts,” he said.

“This should not be a crisis within the assembly or the executive. Instead the executive parties should stand together and confront the source of these cuts, the Tory government.”

He accused the DUP of making a “tactically wrong move”.

“Instead we should develop a common position within the executive and with the Scottish and Welsh assemblies in opposition to Tory austerity,” Mr Murphy said.

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