By Liam Clarke
Vernon Coaker, Labour's new shadow secretary of state, has promised to vote to reform Northern Ireland's welfare system at Westminster if MLAs can't agree on it here.
Mr Coaker flies in tomorrow for meetings with Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and the other Executive parties, as well as the Chief Constable.
He told the Belfast Telegraph he wanted the Government to produce more money for Northern Ireland - but not for welfare payments, one of the key sticking issues at the current talks.
He said: "The Government needs to look at this and see if there are other ways in which the Treasury will ameliorate the impacts of welfare reform in Northern Ireland. They have to see that there are special circumstances there.
"They could look at mental health, look at long-term worklessness, look at the impact of these issues which are made worse by Northern Ireland's special circumstances."
He said he would make such payments if Labour won the next election and he were the new Secretary of State.
Mr Coaker suggested that if MLAs couldn't agree a way forward, Westminster would take the decision for them.
"We don't want it to come to us as a last resort - so let's see if we can get it done in Northern Ireland first," he said.
If he did vote to reform welfare in Northern Ireland, that would be likely to provoke a row with the SDLP.
Mr Coaker has often clashed with new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but was pleased when he asked him to return to Northern Ireland. Mr Coaker was previously shadow secretary here between 2011 and 2013. But he told Mr Corbyn, who has demonstrated support for Sinn Fein in the past, what policies he would pursue here.
"I was clear on the Northern Ireland brief about following the bipartisan approach, upholding the principle of consent, building on the Agreement and so on. He knows I am going to go with the policies I was elected on - they have not changed."
This article was first published in the Belfast Telegraph on 22 September 2015:
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By Liam Clarke Vernon Coaker, Labour's new shadow secretary of state, has promised to vote to reform Northern Ireland's welfare system at Westminster if MLAs can't agree on it here....