US urges Welfare Reform Agreement

Gary Hart
Gary Hart

The US government has urged Northern Ireland’s political parties to reach an understanding on welfare reform.

Former senator Gary Hart represented secretary of state John Kerry during the Stormont House Agreement negotiations before Christmas.

Northern Ireland’s two largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, are in dispute over changes to benefits entitlements and a budget to run public services is in jeopardy. Corporation tax powers will not be devolved from London to Belfast if no resolution is found, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said.

First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness returned from a US business trip as the political deadlock continued.

Mr Hart said: “The United States government continues to strongly support the Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014 and urge all parties to reach an understanding on the scope of the agreement as it applies to welfare payments to citizens of Northern Ireland, so that a successful series of meetings planned for St Patrick’s Day can go forward as planned in Washington.”

Sinn Fein withdrew support for welfare reform legislation at the start of the week claiming it would not protect payments to new benefits claimants and target those with disabilities.

The party said it had made it clear it wanted to provide full protection for current and future claimants.

The DUP has said there was not enough money at the time of the Stormont House Agreement in December and there is not enough now for what Sinn Fein wants.

Passing changes to the welfare rules was a key part of the deal during which the UK Government conceded loans to help balance the budget.

The agreement also provides for a redundancy scheme in which thousands of state workers are expected to leave. A mass strike by public sector health, education, civil service and transport staff against the agreement is due to begin on Friday.

Ms Villiers has said she hopes to meet the leaders of the five executive parties to try to find a way forward.