A resolution to the political crisis gripping power-sharing in Northern Ireland appears further away than ever after talks between the Government and the Stormont Executive parties descended into angry exchanges.
In the most heated encounter of the meeting at Stormont House in Belfast, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness apparently told Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers to “put that in your pipe and smoke it” when challenging her on child poverty statistics.
The talks session involving Ms Villiers, the five Executive parties and the Irish Republic’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan was the latest of a series of meetings to assess progress in implementing the troubled Stormont House Agreement.
The fate of the agreement currently hangs in the balance due to a major row over the non-implementation of the Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy gave his assessment of the behind-closed-doors discussions.
“There was very clearly a clash in Conservative ideology as opposed to the needs of this Executive which involved at one stage a heated exchange between the Deputy First Minister and the Secretary of State,” he said.
He laid the blame on the current impasse squarely on the level of cuts being made on the Executive’s annual budget by the Government.
“We are still in resolution mode,” he said. “I think no one will have come away from today’s meeting with any sense other than the huge difficulties which are facing us and the primary source of those difficulties, and that was much of the content of the meeting, is what the British government is doing and what they propose to continue to do in relation to the public finances available to this Executive.”
But Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt suggested Sinn Fein were guilty of “posturing”.
“That was a very depressing meeting because there is no momentum behind the implementation of this agreement and a lot of people were down there posing and trying to pick fights with the Secretary of State,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt said the process was now a “total mess” and said he did not envisage anything happening until July 8 when the implications of the Chancellor’s emergency budget would be known.
“It was a pretty frank meeting, it was a very frank meeting at times,” he said.
“But it was posturing because everybody knows that in principle the Stormont House Agreement is the right thing to do.”
The introduction of the Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland was a key plank of the Stormont House deal struck between the five Executive parties and the British and Irish governments last December.
An ongoing stalemate on the welfare issue, due to a Sinn Fein/SDLP veto, has endangered other political and economic developments that hinge on the implementation of the agreement.
These include the devolution of corporation tax powers, access to £2 billion of increased borrowing powers from the Treasury, a major civil service redundancy scheme and new structures to address the legacy of the Troubles.
The Executive now faces a £600 million funding black hole this year, in large part due to losing out on the multi-million pound package that would flow from the agreement.
After the meeting, Ms Villiers warned that time was running out to implement the deal and save the Executive.
“Regrettably, today’s meeting took us no further forward,” she said.
“The prospects for a resolution of the welfare impasse look increasingly bleak. Time is running out. Implementation of the SHA is the only way to avert a major crisis. The credibility and the future viability of the devolved institutions is now at stake. The choice rests with NI’s political leaders.”
Democratic Unionist Simon Hamilton challenged SInn Fein and the SDLP to live up to the commitments he said they made in the Stormont House Agreement.
“What today’s meeting showed very, very clearly is there is still an abject lack of willingness on the part of Sinn Fein and the SDLP to live up to and honour the commitments they entered into before Christmas at Stormont House,” he said.
“Whilst the rest of us, including the DUP, are trying to do the right thing, trying to be responsible, trying to make progress in Northern Ireland and live up to what we agreed to in the Stormont House Agreement, it’s very, very clear that Sinn Fein and the SDLP aren’t prepared to do that.”