Impasse in Stormont on welfare reform risks bigger fallout

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

First Minister Peter Robinson and the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams from opposing perspectives are warning of the possible breakdown of the Northern Executive. Even if there is a self-serving element to their sounding of alarm bells, what they are saying should not be disregarded. The DUP Minister of Finance Simon Hamilton told The Irish Times this week that Sinn Féin’s opposition to British government welfare reform is making Stormont “susceptible to collapse”.

The DUP has accused Mr Adams effectively of overriding a willingness on the part of the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to grudgingly accept the welfare shake-up. Under the new system, an annual cap of about £27,000 (€34,000) will be placed on how much households on welfare can receive in benefits. Mr Hamilton pointed out that the Executive achieved a number of concessions from Westminster on how reform would operate in the North and notwithstanding Mr Adams’s demands for resistance to a “Thatcherite agenda designed to dismantle the welfare state” insisted there was no more room for manoeuvre. He alleged that Mr Adams is selfishly focused on the electoral interests of Sinn Féin in the Republic. The imputation is that Mr Adams would not agree to welfare reform in Northern Ireland in case Sinn Féin faced claims of supporting austerity in the North but opposing it in the South.

There is a price to pay in public services and possibly in jobs due to this impasse. The British Treasury is imposing rapidly escalating financial penalties on the Executive for failing to adopt the welfare overhaul – £13 million (€16 million) so far, £87 million (€109 million) up to March next year, £114 million (€142 million) in the following financial year and, according to Mr Hamilton, more than £200 million (€249 million) annually thereafter. Ministers taking hits to their budgets warn of inevitable cuts to police recruitment, broken public street lights not being replaced and an indefinite hold on plans to develop the Magee College university campus in Derry. There will be many more such cutbacks as the penalties bite deeper.

There is a real fear of political stasis and, based on the forebodings of Mr Robinson and Mr Adams, the possible suspension of Stormont due to this standoff. But the DUP is not blameless. It has walked away from talks on issues such as dealing with the past, flags and parades after US diplomat Richard Haass helped create a workable template for dealing with these problems. Northern Ireland, has had more than seven years of an unbroken administration after years of stop-start government since the Belfast Agreement. Now is the time for political restraint, compromise and wisdom. It is also time for the Irish and British governments to pay closer attention to real danger signals.