Stormont politicians wrangling over introducing welfare reforms in Northern Ireland need to decide if they are going to stick with the rest of the UK or go it alone, the Secretary of State has warned.
Theresa Villiers urged Assembly members to end the impasse over implementing changes already made in Great Britain and reiterated the Treasury claim that breaking the parity principle is set to see funding for the power-sharing executive cut by £200 million a year by 2017.
The proposals to reform the welfare system have been the cause of intense political debate in Northern Ireland, in particular the so-called ‘’bedroom tax’’ that would see benefits cut for those not deemed to be utilising all the rooms in their property.
Opponents of the measure insist the make-up of the social housing stock in Northern Ireland would mean many of those impacted would not be able to downsize to smaller properties.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have voiced vehement objections to the welfare changes.
DUP Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has claimed he has secured key concessions from the Government to address many of the local concerns about the system.
Ms Villiers said Mr McCausland had negotiated a “good deal”.
“There is a now a clear choice for the Northern Ireland’s political leadership,” she said.
“To maintain the parity that has served Northern Ireland well for decades - or to go it alone.
“Devolution leaves the decision in the hands of the Assembly but only last week the Finance Minister (Simon Hamilton) estimated the cost of keeping the old system is likely to climb to £200 million - money that might otherwise be funding schools, hospitals and transport improvements.
“I very much hope that choice made here will be to press forward with these reforms and for the Welfare Reform Bill now to make progress through the Assembly.”
Ahead of a visit to youth project in Belfast, Ms Villiers also expressed hope that resolution could be achieved on the stalled Haass proposals on dealing with outstanding peace process issues.
Stormont’s five executive parties have yet to agree on a way forward on the blueprint for tackling the divisive issues of flags, parades and the legacy of the past.
While Sinn Fein and the SDLP want to implement the Haass document as it stands, the DUP and UUP want significant elements re-negotiated.
The Alliance party want the plan implemented but want to make what, it insists, are necessary changes as it goes through the legislative stages at Stormont.
The leaders of the five parties have held a number of meetings since the talks chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass ended without resolution on New Year’s Eve, but a breakthrough has proved elusive.
If the broad architecture of the Haass plan was accepted it would necessitate the establishment of a range of new public bodies.
Ms Villiers has said the Government would consider any bid for additional Treasury funding to set up the structures, but has stressed it could not make any promises.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, who will address young people at Youth Action (NI) later today, said she and Prime Minister David Cameron would continue to encourage and facilitate progress.
“We’ve made clear that we want the process to succeed,” she said.
“We’ve also been clear that we’re prepared to be part of compromise, even on issues which aren’t easy for us such as the creation of new institutions on the past.”
She added: “But as guarantor of the devolution settlement, what we won’t do is seek to impose solutions that do not have the support of Northern Ireland’s political leadership.
“For any set of proposals to work effectively and withstand inevitable pressure in the future, they need be agreed by those who will ultimately have to implement and operate them.
“And that is the Northern Ireland parties in the Executive and Assembly - not the UK or Irish Governments.
“The prize of an agreement on flags, parading and the past should not be under-valued.
“As we’ve seen over the past year, tensions around parading and flags can cause serious public disorder.
“That in turn makes it more difficult to promote Northern Ireland as a place for attracting investment and jobs, particularly in more deprived communities.
“So progress on these issues would boost our efforts to strengthen Northern Ireland economically as well as helping to build a more cohesive and shared society.
“And it would once again demonstrate to the world that Northern Ireland’s politicians have the will, resolve and resourcefulness to tackle issues that might once have been regarded as intractable.
“So there is much to be gained by sticking with this process and persisting with effort to try and find a way through.
“And that’s what I am urging the parties to continue to do.”