Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has accused Martin McGuinness of an “irrational and panicked outburst” after the Deputy First Minister attacked the UUP and SDLP for tabling amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.
The bill, which will extend the changes to benefits in the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland, was voted through consideration stage in the Assembly on Wednesday with the support of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
A £565 million fund over six years will ‘top up’ the benefits of at least some of those who will have their welfare payments cut under the reforms, but the details remain sketchy.
In an article for the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, the Deputy First Minister accused the UUP and SDLP of a “disingenuous display of self-serving party politicking”.
He said: “Both are members of the Executive. Both negotiated and signed up to the Stormont House Agreement. Their respective party leaders...gave commitments to implement the agreement and bring proposed amendments to the party leaders’ implementation group in order to maintain the five-party consensus so instrumental in securing agreement in the first place.”
But UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that Mr McGuinness’s “rant” was “an irrational and panicked outburst” that is “riddled with holes”.
Mr Nesbitt said: “There is not enough space to correct all of Martin McGuinness’s factual inaccuracies, but for the record, some key points: the Ulster Unionist Party did not and has not ‘signed up’ to the Stormont House Agreement.
“We are giving it a fair wind, conscious that the ‘devil is in the detail’ and while I remain positive in outlook, I shall not let that Heads of Agreement become a political straightjacket.
“He questions why we did not raise our amendments at the weekly Stormont House Agreement implementation group meetings? We did. He and I both have a note of the group meeting penned by the Head of the Civil Service that records our amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill were agreed. He agreed them. It’s in black and white, just as it is clear in my memory.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s national chairman Declan Kearney yesterday said — in the week that Sinn Fein voted through the Welfare Reform Bill — that the party’s “campaign against austerity will continue”.
Writing in An Phoblacht, Mr Kearney claimed: ”By standing firm against the London-Dublin Tory axis, Sinn Fein achieved a welfare system better than the one in Britain, by an average of £94m per year.”