Encouraging progress has been made to resolve a Stormont crisis over the non-implementation of welfare reforms, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said.
But Ms Villiers stressed that time was of the essence to finally settle the row that rocked the power-sharing institutions last week.
She met with the leaders of the five parties at Stormont on Thursday afternoon for a stocktaking review of ongoing negotiations aimed at finding a settlement.
The dispute flared when Sinn Fein withdrew support for welfare legislation over concerns that the Executive’s mitigation measures for those losing out under the Government’s changes to the benefits system would not cover new claimants.
The party claimed more than £200 million extra was required on top of the £90 million a year the five Executive parties agreed to allocate as part of December’s landmark Stormont House political deal that had supposedly resolved the welfare impasse and a range of other wrangles.
The crisis appeared to have eased somewhat at the end of last week when both Sinn Fein and the DUP said progress had been made to find an accommodation. Discussions to find consensus resumed again in earnest on Thursday.
After the meeting with the five parties, Ms Villiers said: “Today’s meeting was constructive and I am encouraged that progress is being made. It is essential that a resolution is reached quickly on this dispute over how the welfare provisions of the (Stormont House) Agreement will be implemented, so that the legislation on changes to the welfare system in Northern Ireland can complete its passage through the Assembly.”
Earlier DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton insisted progress could be achieved without exceeding the £90 million per year pre-agreed spending limit.
Mr Hamilton had already warned that no new public money would be offered to further bolster the Stormont-funded support schemes for claimants.
The minister said the basis of a potential solution, details of which are still being hammered out by the parties, would not require extra money.
It is understood Stormont officials are looking at ways of more tightly focusing the existing pot of money on certain claimant categories.
“We are working very hard to find a way forward and hopefully that will be successful over the next day or so and people will see how we have been able to find a way forward,” Mr Hamilton said at an event in Belfast.
“But it is important for me that we are doing that within the scope of the budget that we have set aside, which is a very tight, very challenging budget - (a budget) not without its difficulties but we don’t want to exacerbate those difficulties by taking more money from public services to pay for welfare reform.”
Days after exchanging angry accusations over the stalled introduction of the Government’s revised welfare system, DUP First Minister Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness surprised many onlookers last Friday by appearing side by side to report a degree of progress.
Implementing the Government’s changes to the benefits system is a key plank of December’s Stormont House Agreement and, without passing the already long-delayed legislation, the whole deal would be likely to implode.
As well as a commitment by the local parties to introduce the welfare reforms after a two-year impasse, the agreement gave the Executive access to a £2 billion financial package from the Treasury, primarily in the shape of extended borrowing powers.
The deal also paved the way for the devolution of corporation tax powers to the region and the setting of a sustainable budget for 2015/16. It also established new mechanisms for dealing with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Ms Villiers said her desire for a quick resolution was shared by the US administration in Washington.
She added: “I urge the parties to continue to work together to maintain the positive progress made so far in implementing the Stormont House Agreement. If this dispute is not resolved this would jeopardise the whole package, including the £2 billion additional spending power, new institutions on the past, and transfer of powers over corporation tax. It would also see a revival of the serious budget crisis which hit Stormont in the autumn.”
With Chancellor George Osborne warning in the Budget of further multibillion-pound savings to welfare spending if the Conservatives win the election, Mr Hamilton today stressed the need for continued reform of the public sector in Northern Ireland.
“Welfare reform is something that has been happening now for several years. Even the previous Labour administration brought through welfare reforms which are being implemented in Northern Ireland, so reforming welfare is nothing new,” he said.
“The Budget outlined the serious amount of public spending reductions we face moving forward.
“There was some respite in the sense that we will have one year less of austerity, that seems to be the indication coming from the Chancellor, but there is still going to be a lot of pressure in the intervening years and that’s why it is incredibly important that we continue to focus on - while still trying to deliver public services to a high standard, while still trying to ensure economic growth happens in Northern Ireland - that we continue to focus on the need to reform and restructure our public service.”