LONDON — The power-sharing government of Northern Ireland failed to pass a key welfare bill on Tuesday, reaching an impasse that senior politicians have warned could endanger the fragile regional assembly.
Nationalist parties Sinn Fein and the SDLP used a veto to block a package of social welfare reforms backed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which leads the power-sharing government.
Failure to pass the bill means that the administration of the British-controlled province faces a budgetary black hole of some £600 million ($924 million, 848 million euros), as penalty fines accrue for not implementing the cuts.
First Minister Peter Robinson, who missed the debate after being hospitalised with a suspected heart attack, had warned of a "crisis" that could topple the government if the bill did not pass.
Robinson had said he would ask the British government to take over welfare in Northern Ireland if the bill were not passed – something Sinn Fein has said would be unacceptable.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness blamed the Conservative, or Tory, administration of British Prime Minister David Cameron for causing the impasse by demanding the cuts.
"The current crisis has come about solely through the actions of the British government," McGuinness said, saying the cuts targeted "the most vulnerable in society."
"If a choice has to be made to stand side by side with the Tories or stand up for the people here, for our economy or public services, I know what side Sinn Fein will be on."
The DUP accused Sinn Fein of backtracking, as it initially agreed to compromises on welfare.
The bill was scuppered after Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green party's sole representative used a "petition of concern" against it, meaning it needed a majority of both nationalists and unionists in the house.
Robinson, who has led the administration since 2008, was said to be improving in hospital.
The power-sharing assembly, created from a landmark 1998 peace deal that ended decades of violence, has been hampered from making progress in a range of areas due to deep divisions between the parties in government. — AFP