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Politicians huddle in crisis Belfast talks

Stormont House

By Ray O’Hanlon

Political leaders from North, South and across the Irish Sea are meeting in Belfast today in an effort to sort out the political impasse caused by the North Executive’s failure to pass a welfare bill.

The talks are also aimed at fully implementing the Stormont House Agreement reached last Christmas.

The survival of the current government in Belfast is seen as being on the line.

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The talks involve the Irish and British governments, and all five political parties represented in the Assembly.

Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, and Minister of State Seán Sherlock, are representing the Irish government in what is being formally dubbed “a Review and Monitoring meeting of the Stormont House Agreement.”

“The failure last week of the Welfare Bill to secure approval in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the consequent budgetary implications, have a direct and major impact on the prospects for implementing the totality of the Stormont House Agreement,” said a statement from Flanagan’s department.

“Accordingly, following consultation with the British Government, it was decided that a Review and Monitoring meeting of the Stormont House Agreement would take place this week. All five of the Northern Ireland Executive parties will attend.”

Meanwhile, the Irish Times was reporting that two former Irish-American congressman have called on Northern Ireland’s parties and the British and Irish governments to seek a compromise on the budget cuts that have led to political stalemate.

James Walsh and Bruce Morrison said in a joint letter to North leaders that they believe a compromise can be reached to accept the current cuts envisioned by the Stormont Agreement coupled with a deal by the British government for a three-year moratorium on future welfare cuts.

“Northern Ireland should be in a much better place economically and socially in three years if the Stormont Agreement is broadly implemented,” the two said.

The North would benefit from “the resulting economic and political stability can produce increased inward and local investment in job-creating development.”

Walsh, a Republican, and Morrison, a Democrat, stated that this stability was “absolutely essential for the promotion of investment in Northern Ireland by American companies.”

Their proposal would provide the basis “for a renewed effort by each of you to resolve the current impasse impeding the further implementation of the Stormont Agreement.”

The letter was sent to North Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, Minister Flanagan and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Added the Times report: “Mr. Walsh and Mr. Morrison noted in their letter that the burdens on Northern Ireland from the recession and decades of the Troubles “make the prospect of further welfare cuts a matter of great concern.”

They pointed to the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in Northern Ireland and suicide, referring to a statistic that suicide is 63 per cent higher in Northern Ireland than the rate in Britain.

“We are concerned that a ‘one size fits all approach’ to welfare reform for the United Kingdom negates this striking reality of Northern Ireland’s recent past,” they wrote.

Even as leaders were gathering in Belfast, investment and jobs in Belfast, and the rest of Northern Ireland, were poised to take center stage at the sixth annual New York/New Belfast conference to be held at the Fordham Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week.