The Executive Parties have agreed a deal on welfare reform and have sent a paper to the NIO outlining an agreement. Earlier Martin McGuinness tweeted that there had been “a step change” in the atmosphere at the talks. Progress at the talks had seemed unlikely and there were suggestions that they could have drawn to a close today in the absence of signs of an agreement.
On Talkback Gareth Gordon suggested that the £70 million set aside in the draft budget for welfare reform flexibilities has been increased to £125 million and no additional money would be sought from the British Government for welfare reform. Theresa Villiers has stated quite categorically that any additional welfare spending would have to come from the block grant.
It would seem that Sinn Féin and the SDLP have shifted from their previous position of absolute opposition to the implementation of welfare reform. Sinn Féin had released a document with 11 points outlining their stance on welfare reform which has widely been described as unrealistic. Earlier this year proposals were released by the Department of Social Development detailing a package of measures to mitigate the negative effects of welfare reform. It is expected that the new agreement will go further than those proposals but how much further?
There appears to have been limited progress on the past, parades and flags. However the parties have agreed to seek extra funding for dealing with the past and it is believed that the parties will work together over the weekend to find agreement on other issues. It is perhaps counterintuitive that the parties have come to an agreement on the funding required to deal with the legacy of the Troubles without first agreeing on how to take those issues forward.
Focus will now shift back to David Cameron and whether he will be willing to send more money to Northern Ireland to deal with the past. Currently there do not seem to be any plans for him to return to Stormont but the Prime Minister did appear to be open to the prospect of making an improved offer dependent on progress on resolving Northern Ireland’s finances. Now the question is whether the parties’ agreed position will be a step too far.
UPDATE 16:30: Theresa Villiers has said that the government is now studying the parties’ proposals and will respond as soon as possible. She encouraged the parties to continue working and has said that the Prime Minister will not be back in Northern Ireland before Christmas. The BBC have released further details of the proposals with the Executive understood to be seeking £2 billion over a ten year period. This would include extra borrowing power and the cancellation of the penalties for not implementing welfare reform. Also included is the creation of a Peace Investment Fund although exactly how this would differ from the Social Investment Fund is uncertain.
Mark Devenport has details of the breakdown of the parties’ £2 billion Christmas list on Twitter. £800 million to cover voluntary civil service redundancies, £300 million infrastructure projects, £214 million for welfare penalties, £200 million for dealing with the past, £500 million for shared education.