Northern Irish government not fit for purpose: first minister

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2014 7:28 AM

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's devolved government is not fit for purpose in its current form and could collapse over a row between power-sharing partners on budget cuts, the British-controlled province's most senior politician said on Tuesday.

First Minister Peter Robinson called for all-party talks to reform Belfast's Stormont Assembly, which he said would become untenable if an impasse over welfare cuts - primarily between his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and nationalist Sinn Fein - cannot be solved.

Robinson's comments come as Britain scrambles to offer a timetable for the devolution of further powers to fellow United Kingdom member Scotland with polls showing next week's vote on Scottish independence is too close to call. [ID:nL5N0RA0YG]

"We have now come against an issue that doesn't allow us to hang on with the present process at Stormont. The present process cannot survive the welfare reform issue," Robinson told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.

"Our most recent problems inescapably point to the absolute need for reform. Even if we were not faced with potentially terminal welfare decisions, Stormont's processes need to be fundamentally upgraded."

Robinson, who on Monday urged Scottish voters not to leave the Union, said a breakdown of Northern Ireland's government could turn a peace process revered around the world into a cautionary tale for regions still divided by conflict.

Three decades of sectarian violence between mainly Catholic nationalists seeking Irish union and pro-British Protestants wishing to stay in the United Kingdom was mostly ended by a 1998 peace deal and subsequent power-sharing agreement.

But Belfast, which relies on a 10 billion pound ($16 billion) annual grant from London to run its public services, is deadlocked over welfare cuts. Sinn Fein erected billboards around the province this week protesting against the "Tory cuts", a reference to Britain's Conservative-led government.

Under the 2007 St. Andrews agreement, which restored self-rule in Northern Ireland after an initial phase was dogged by instability, both sides must reach agreement in areas such as education and social welfare.

"We all have a responsibility to work together but in the first place the First Minister should talk to me and to his Executive colleagues. Megaphone or media-based negotiations are counter-productive," Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said in a statement.

"We have overcome enormous challenges in the past by treating each other with a degree of respect."

($1 = 0.6190 British Pounds)

(Writing by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Catherine Evans)