Northern Ireland

Peter Robinson: Welfare 'could be debated in assembly next week'

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Media captionMr Robinson said much was possible, but there was still a long way to go before reaching any firm deal

The welfare reform bill could be debated in the assembly again next week if there is sufficient movement in ongoing negotiations, the first minister has said.

Peter Robinson told the BBC it was "possible" to reach agreement by mid-week.

Last week, Sinn Féin withdrew its support for welfare legislation.

The parties have been taking part in talks to resolve the political impasse for several days.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Mr Robinson were due to travel to Washington for St Patrick's Day, but said on Sunday that they would stay in Northern Ireland in order to continue with negotiations.

Last week, Mr McGuinness said £200m would solve the problems over welfare reform, but on Monday, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said no additional money could be allocated.

Mr Robinson said much was possible, but there was still a long way to go before reaching any solid deal.

'Way forward'

"If that is possible to do, then it is also possible to have an executive meeting earlier than would normally have been be the case to look at the schemes that would be involved," he said.

"Then it would be possible to go to the speaker and the business committee and ask them to put the welfare reform bill in the assembly for next week.

"All that is possible, but it is only possible if we can reach agreements."

The first minister also said he would only consider a deal had been done on welfare when the legislation is finally passed.

Mr Robinson said: "Agreement on welfare to me now is more than getting a paper that sets out the way forward.

"It's about agreeing the schemes to go before the executive to be agreed there, and getting the welfare bill through its final stage.

"When that happens we can consider ourselves to have an agreement on welfare, but not until."

The Northern Ireland parties had agreed a deal on Westminster's welfare reform in the Stormont House Agreement in December.

The issue had previously threatened the future of the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive.

Last week, Sinn Féin withdrew support for the bill and accused the DUP of going back on what had been agreed.

The DUP rejected this, saying there had never been the money for all the things Sinn Féin wanted and that Sinn Féin had been aware of this.

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