Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland welfare dispute: Westminster could take over powers

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Media captionTheresa Villiers said she cannot rule out Westminster legislating on welfare matters

The secretary of state has said she cannot rule out Westminster legislating on welfare matters in Northern Ireland.

Theresa Villiers is meeting the NI parties following Tuesday night's rejection of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Green Party made a petition of concern, a blocking mechanism, that meant it did not get the required cross-community support.

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness it would be "huge mistake" for Westminster to take control of welfare in NI.

On Wednesday, the secretary of state said: "In this situation it means looking at a range of options, some of which are certainly options we wouldn't want to choose in the best of circumstances.

"But I think I can't rule out action on this at Westminster, but we're some way away from that as we speak, there is still more that can be done to try and reach a resolution through the devolved institutions."

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Media captionMartin McGuinness warned it would be a "huge mistake" if Westminster took over welfare powers

Sinn Féin's Mr McGuinness said it would be unacceptable for Westminster to take over Northern Ireland welfare powers.

"I'll be meeting Theresa Villiers in the morning and I'll be telling her that would be a huge mistake," he said.

The DUP's Sammy Wilson said the welfare reform bill was now dead

"The financial consequences which stem from that are going to roll out not just this year, but next year and the year after that. We're entering uncharted waters," the DUP's Sammy Wilson said.

"I think the only answer for this, since there's not the maturity amongst the nationalist parties in the assembly to deal with this issue, the government must now take on the welfare reform issue itself.

A majority of 58 assembly members voted in favour and 39 voted against the bill to make changes to benefits that have been introduced in the rest of the UK. But the bill was defeated by a petition of concern supported by nationalist parties and the Green Party.

What is a petition of concern?

The measure was designed as a way to safeguard minority rights in Stormont's power-sharing assembly.

If a petition of concern is presented to the assembly speaker, any motion or amendment will need cross-community support.

In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if supported by a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting.

Effectively this means that, provided enough MLAs from a particular community agree, that community can exercise a veto over the assembly's decisions.

There were several mitigation schemes in the bill that would have lessened its impact.

'Measure of the crisis'

David Ford of the Alliance Party said it was not clear what would happen now. "Within the next couple of weeks we have to resolve the budget issue, not just the June monitoring round - the reallocation between departments in year - but actually to pass the bill to allow departments to spend money in the second half of the financial year," he said.

"So that's a measure of the crisis we're in, that has to be resolved and it's unclear at this stage how that will be resolved."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said Sinn Féin was making the vulnerable in Northern Ireland suffer for their political aspirations in the Republic.

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Media captionThe BBC's Gareth Gordon: "Stormont is possibly once more slipping into dangerous waters"

"We now stand closer than ever to the point where we witness the death of democracy in Northern Ireland. This will come when duly elected politicians have to hand over power to a civil servant," he said.

TUV leader Jim Allister said "the chickens are coming home to roost in the failure of mandatory coalition".

Shadow NI secretary Ivan Lewis said: "All Northern Ireland's parties have to accept responsibility for making the difficult choices necessary to set a viable budget as a matter of urgency."

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

However, Sinn Féin withdrew its support in March.

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