The Northern Irish government in Stormont is currently in an unstable stalemate following the failed attempt of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to pass a welfare reform bill, the Stormont House Agreement (SHA), through the assembly.
As it stands, yesterday's failure to pass legislation to implement these welfare reforms will see government departments running out of money this July. The DUP warned that a failure to pass these reforms could see Stormont losing responsibility for welfare decisions in Northern Ireland with responsibility transferring to Westminster instead, without the consent of the assembly.
Pressure is now mounting on Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to intervene in the stalemate and prevent this from happening before government departments and the assembly collapse.
DUP Finance Minister Arlene Foster has until this Friday to approve a budget, but the DUP has already made it clear that they will not support a budget without the implementation of these welfare changes and Nationalist parties are not happy to implement them.
The bill, put forward by the DUP, was agreed at Stormont House last December, but petitions of concern during the assembly debate this week saw Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) block the legislation. They claimed that they would not leave Northern Ireland’s underprivileged and vulnerable—the long-term sick, disabled and larger families—to suffer from severe budget cuts planned by the newly re-elected Conservative party in London.
Following the debate, 59.79% of the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) present for the debate voted in favor of the reforms. Sinn Féin and the SDLP, Northern Ireland’s two nationalist parties, lodged a petition of concern, however. This petition of concern vetoed the successful vote and meant the legislation could not pass through the Assembly without the majority support of both the nationalist and unionist parties.
The legislation was supported by the proposers, the DUP, as well as the Ulster Unionists, Alliance and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader, Jim Allister. The 39 Nationalist MLAs refused to pass the legislation, however, along with the sole MLA from the Green Party, Stephen Agnew.
Despite the pressure to confirm a budget by the end of this week, both sides have, as yet, been unable to agree on a suitable way forward.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey, chair of the committee said, "The bill will not pass today. We are then into territory unknown, and it is up to the parties to work out where we go."
Former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson also commented on the instability of government in Northern Ireland if an agreement cannot be reached and the uncertainty as to the way forward from the current stalemate. He believes, "We are moving into uncharted waters. We don't know constitutionally where this could lead us. We don't know politically where this could lead us."
On the other side of the fence, Unionists question the catastrophic results if the Bill is not enacted. Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs: "There is no doubt that if the budget problem deepens even further if the bill is not approved, there will be thousands of compulsory redundancies instead of voluntary redundancies across the public sector. How else do you balance the budget?"
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, however, has claimed that Sinn Féin and the SDLP’s issue with the bill are in regard to further cuts that could be made by Chancellor George Osborne in a new budget on July 8, on top of those agreed in the SHA.
"Make no mistake about it, the biggest threat to our institutions remains the ongoing Tory agenda of cuts. This is a time when the executive parties need to stand together," McGuinness said.
Those in favor of the bill warn that the passing of responsibility to Westminster could see those cuts and more implemented with no protection from the SHA.
The assembly now lies in unchartered waters with the threat of running out of money looming over both sides of the debate and the future of the Northern Irish government hanging in the balance.