McGuinness pulls out of St Patrick’s Day trip to Washington

Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.
Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has pulled out of a St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington because of the deadlock over welfare reform.

Martin McGuinness, who is a Mid Ulster MLA said he wanted to focus on resolving the crisis at Stormont.

The Sinn Fein deputy leader said: “I have decided therefore in the best interests of trying to move the situation forward that I will not be travelling to the US to take part in events marking St Patrick’s Day.”

Mr McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson had been invited to the White House for the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations on Tuesday.

However, last week, in the wake of Sinn Fein’s dramatic withdrawal of support for welfare legislation, Mr Robinson indicated that he may not travel to the United States for the event.

The five main Executive parties have been engaged in emergency talks since last Thursday and are expected to resume negotiations tomorrow.

In a statement released this morning Mr McGuinness said: “The number one priority for me and my party is finding a resolution to the difficulties currently facing the Executive.

“The Sinn Fein team and I have engaged in this work positively and constructively.

“Progress has been made in talks between the parties but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

The First and Deputy First Ministers were due to meet President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during a series of March 17 engagements.

Last week former senator Gary Hart who represented secretary of state John Kerry during the Stormont House Agreement talks before Christmas said he hoped a resolution to the stalemate could be found so that the Washington meetings could go ahead.

The row over welfare reform erupted on Monday when Sinn Fein made a shock announcement just hours before a final Assembly debate.

It centres on whether Stormont-funded mitigation schemes designed to support those in Northern Ireland who lose out under the reformed UK welfare system will cover future claimants, not just existing ones.

Sinn Fein pulled support after alleging the DUP had acted in bad faith by proposing to limit the schemes to current claimants.

The DUP has insisted there had never been an agreement to support future claimants and said such a system would require another £286 million.

Implementing the Government’s changes to the benefits system is a key plank of December’s landmark Stormont House Agreement which was agreed after 11 weeks of intensive negotiations.

Without the already long-delayed legislation passing, the whole deal would likely implode and the future of the powersharing institutions would be plunged into uncertainty.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has warned that without agreement on welfare the budget would be unsustainable and the devolution of corporation tax powers would be put in jeopardy.