DUBLIN (AP) — Efforts to sustain the Catholic-Protestant government in Northern Ireland are looking "increasingly grim," Britain's minister overseeing the territory declared Tuesday after negotiations failed to break a budgetary deadlock.
The Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party for the past year has blocked local introduction of United Kingdom-wide welfare reforms, arguing that Britain should fund enhanced welfare payouts for Northern Ireland claimants. Sinn Fein, which represents the Catholic minority, in March withdrew from a compromise plan that would have resolved the impasse — and on Tuesday left all-party talks in Belfast blaming Britain.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams accused British officials of refusing to "accept their role in provoking this crisis." He warned that if his party accepted the current proposed benefit cuts, Britain would be emboldened to impose more.
But the Irish government and the major Protestant-backed party, the Democratic Unionists, said Sinn Fein's position was unreasonable and placed the future of power-sharing — the cornerstone of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord — in needless jeopardy. They said Sinn Fein wanted to bolster its record as an anti-austerity party ahead of elections expected soon in the neighboring Republic of Ireland.
First Minister Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist leader whose party controls the finance department, said he intended to present an updated, take-it-or-leave-it budget to Sinn Fein and other Cabinet colleagues.
All sides agree that, without agreement on the next annual budget, Northern Ireland's 8-year-old coalition will lose legal authority to fund policing and other government services at the end of July. To avoid this looming fiasco, Britain could strip the five-party government of its budgetary powers and resume direct control.
Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, said Tuesday's fruitless talks gave her little hope of a breakthrough.
She said Sinn Fein leaders needed to renew their pre-Christmas agreement on British welfare reforms. It contained sweeteners for local politicians, including easier access to British government loans and new funds to investigate unresolved killings from Northern Ireland's four-decade conflict.
"The situation looks increasingly grim ... and time is running out," Villiers said, calling on Sinn Fein and others "to deliver on their side of the deal."