As Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson, recovers from a heart operation, the power-sharing government he leads is teetering on the brink of collapse.
The five-party coalition in the regional devolved administration in Belfast is split over a welfare reform bill that nationalist parties are threatening to veto. The centrist cross-community Alliance party has questioned whether Sinn Féin and the SDLP are still willing to govern Northern Ireland.
Robinson will miss Tuesday afternoon’s debate in which his Democratic Unionist party will push ahead with the bill, which envisages public sector cuts in the region as part of a deal with the UK Treasury. In return for the cuts, the devolved government will be allowed to set its own low corporation tax in order to compete with the Irish Republic in attracting foreign investment.
The DUP argues that blocking the bill would leave the Northern Ireland executive with a £600m deficit and could potentially bring down devolution. Sinn Féin and the SDLP plan to enact a “petition of concern” – a mechanism by which parties can veto legislation by claiming a bill does not have sufficient support from each religious/political community.
The DUP finance minister, Arlene Foster, has said there is no alternative but to agree to the bill. She said: “The choice is very clear today: we either back the bill or we allow the bill to fall, which means that all of those top-ups that were negotiated will fall, the conditional support will fall, we’ll continue to have to have the levies – the fines from Westminster of £9.5m per month currently – and those are going to increase. And of course we have a £600m pressure in relation to our budget.
“But Sinn Féin knows what the choice is. Everybody’s walking into this bill today and they know the consequences if they don’t back the bill.”
But Sinn Féin’s education minister, John O’Dowd, said the devolved government could still go back to London and negotiate a better deal. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 15 to 20 years, it’s that negotiation can overcome what was thought as a very difficult problem,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s willingness to risk bringing down the power-sharing government is centred on its concerns over its fortunes south of the border and chances in next year’s general election. Sinn Féin has faced criticism from its opponents in the Republic for opposing austerity measures there while seemingly being prepared to implement similar measures in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Unionists and Alliance say Sinn Féin and the SDLP are being unrealistic to expect more cash from the new Tory-majority UK government. Roy Beggs, of the UUP, said: “I think we all have to be realistic and accept that a new government has just been elected into Westminster and they are not going to change and suddenly start treating Northern Ireland differently from other parts of the UK.
“I think to continue to take that line is irresponsible and will result in quite a crisis in Northern Ireland and a crisis that will result in the most vulnerable in our community suffering, because ultimately I would believe significant monies would need to be taken out of our health service in order to balance the budget.”
Alliance’s employment and learning minister, Stephen Farry, said: “Welfare policy is primarily determined at a UK-level. Especially with our huge financial subvention from Westminster, the scope for local variation is limited. This is the reality.”
Parliamentary reports show first speaker only - follow this lnk for the full transcription.
Articles may come from parliamentary reports, various public news feeds and Google News Search. Content is republished here for context. Copyright is respected and remains with the original author at all times. Original Article:http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/26/northern-ireland-coalition-collapse-row-welfare-cuts