Villiers rules out suspending Stormont… for now

Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has ruled out suspending the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, according to the BBC – for the time being, at any rate.

However, she warned that if the Executive continued to fail to implement welfare reform – a long-running standoff with Sinn Fein that underlies the current crisis over the IRA – there was a real chance the province’s devolved government might start running out of cash.

A fresh round of crisis talks aimed at stabilising the situation – sparked by the revelation that the Provisional IRA might still be active and murdering people – are ongoing.

However the BBC reports that the Ulster Unionists, the province’s smaller pro-UK party, have announced that they won’t rejoin talks this morning unless the IRA is at the top of the agenda.

Peter Robinson, First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has also announced that he is suspending routine meetings of the Executive. The Independent reported that this came after the DUP failed to secure a four-week adjournment of the Assembly.

The DUP leader has however welcomed the prospect of Westminster legislating directly to implement welfare reform in Ulster. The News Letter reports him describing such a move as a “game changer” which could break the deadlock.

Plaid attack on Welsh Labour as they eye coalition ministries

Last week, this column reported the anger of Andrew RT Davies, the Welsh Conservative leader, at Plaid Cymru’s public refusal to cooperate with the Tories in the event that Labour lose their effective majority in the Welsh Assembly next year.

With a “rainbow coalition” looking like the only viable alternative to Labour, that declaration effectively guaranteed Carwyn Jones, the First Minister and Labour’s most senior remaining elected politician, an extended lease on power.

Despite having effectively boxed herself in Leanne Wood, Plaid’s embattled and very left-wing leader, has launched a stinging attack on Labour,alleging that their uninterrupted 16 years in office have been a “waste” according to Wales Online. She says:

“It is political leadership that has failed people in this country. It is political leadership that has turned devolution from a burning beacon of hope into the damp squib that it has become. They said there’d be clear red water; instead we got a stagnant swamp. Bereft of ambition, out of ideas.”

Despite the rhetoric, Woods’ refusal to contemplate the only impossible alternative government makes the ferocity of her attacks on Jones’ government ring hollow.

It also presumably weakened the nationalists’ hand in any coalition negotiations. Nonetheless, this week they set out their intent to take control of health and education policy after May’s elections.

Jones’ administration has been weak on both these areas – a fact ruthlessly exploited by the Conservatives – but it still seems far-fetched to imagine a Labour government abandoning two policy areas so central to its self-conception.

SNP policy meets resistance at home and abroad

The Daily Telegraph reported this week that the European Union might be about to scupper the Scottish National Party’s plan to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol in Scotland.

Apparently a senior official at the European Court leaked that the plans, intended to lower drinking levels north of the border, risked infringing on the EU’s trade rules.

The measure would only be legal if it could be demonstrated that other methods, such as increased taxation, wouldn’t be effective at lowering consumption.

Almost half the alcohol sold in supermarkets and off-licences in Scotland – which comprises three quarters of total sales – is apparently cheaper than the 50p minimum price proposed by the Scottish Government.

Meanwhile, the Scotsman relates that opponents of the SNP administration’s ‘state guardian’ proposals – where the state appoints an individual, or “named person”, to monitor every child in Scotland – have vowed to continue their campaign after losing their latest legal challenge.

Opponents, who include the Conservatives and several Christian charities, view the move as an unacceptable usurpation of parental prerogatives by the state, but the judges felt that this was no more the case than with the general provision of social services.

NO2NP, the principle opposition group, have pledged to appeal the ruling at the UK Supreme Court and if necessary in the European courts.

The Scottish Government also came under fire this week when it unveiled its proposed complaints process for the named persons scheme, which have been described as a “bureaucratic nightmare”.

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