Northern Ireland

NI talks: Theresa Villiers says future of Northern Ireland devolution at stake

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Media captionTheresa Villiers said the credibility and survival of devolved government was at stake

The secretary of state has repeated her warnings that the future of Northern Ireland devolution is under threat.

Theresa Villiers made the comments in a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

She said unless the talks process succeeds, the credibility and survival of devolved government is at stake.

"Unlike last year, we simply don't have the luxury of endless long hours of discussions stretching on and on until Christmas," she said.

"What's at stake is not just the credibility of devolved government in Northern Ireland, but the survival of devolved government in Northern Ireland."

'Collateral damage'

The secretary of state also warned: "There's a real risk that those taking a hard line against welfare reform will end up running the devolved institutions into collapse as collateral damage."

She again said the government would be prepared to legislate at Westminster for welfare reform in Northern Ireland, but only as a last resort.

"A return to direct rule would be a severe setback after everything that's been achieved over recent years and we are doing all we can to prevent it," she added

Ms Villiers also said there would be no more money for welfare in Northern Ireland.

"Without welfare reform and efficiency measures to deal with in-year pressures, the executive's budget simply does not add up," she said.

"Pouring millions of pounds every week into an unreformed, high cost, welfare system in Northern Ireland means less and less money available for frontline public services."

Ms Villiers also used her speech to attack the Labour Party.

"Many will view with grave concern the fact that, as recently as August, the leader the Labour Party have just elected was asked five times in an interview to condemn IRA terrorism and five times failed to do so," she said.

"While the shadow chancellor [John McDonnell] might have issued a carefully worded apology for the hurt caused by his comments on the IRA, I say it's time he retracted in full his call to honour IRA terrorists and admit that he was entirely wrong ever to have made that statement in the first place."

'Amnesty not countenanced'

On dealing with Northern Ireland's past, the secretary of state said the government would "never accept any attempt to re-write history or legitimise the actions of those who pursued their aims by the bullet or the bomb".

"And we will not countenance any form of amnesty for those suspected of criminal behaviour," she added.

"Under this Conservative government the law will always take its course without fear or favour and the bill we introduce will be wholly consistent with that fundamental principle."

She said the fallout from two recent murders in Belfast had highlighted the continued presence of paramilitary organisations and the involvement of some of their members in criminality and organised crime.

"A key aim of the talks is to find a way to bring an end to this continuing blight on Northern Ireland society," she said.

Inter-party talks in Northern Ireland began last month in a bid to resolve the current political crisis at Stormont.

The current crisis at Stormont was triggered when police said they believed IRA members had been involved in the murder of a former IRA man in Belfast in August.

The parties have also been deadlocked over the issue of welfare. The Northern Ireland parties had agreed on a welfare reform deal in December but Sinn Féin withdrew its support in March.

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