Minister warns Stormont ‘susceptible to collapse’ over welfare reform

Hamilton insists British government ‘not for turning’

DUP Minister for Finance Simon Hamilton:  claims Sinn Féin “are living on another planet economically and fiscally”. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/PA

DUP Minister for Finance Simon Hamilton: claims Sinn Féin “are living on another planet economically and fiscally”. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/PA

Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 01:00

On British government welfare reform Simon Hamilton, the DUP Minister of Finance, says he has one message for Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin, “It’s a good old Ulsterism: wise up.”

At his impressive modern office overlooking Belfast harbour the 37-year-old Minister enters the quarrel between Sinn Féin and the DUP that both Gerry Adams and First Minister Peter Robinson agree is threatening the future of the powersharing Northern Executive.

The leaders make their points from conflicting perspectives. Adams in a strong recent statement warned that the political process is “in trouble” because of an “anti-Good Friday Agreement axis within unionism”.

Robinson accused Adams of making his statement to try to divert attention from the welfare reform dispute. He said that Sinn Féin’s refusal to sign up to the welfare shakeup is threatening meltdown at Stormont.

Electoral interests

Hamilton, needless to say, sides with his leader. He accuses Adams and Sinn Féin of engaging in “populist” politics and putting the party’s southern electoral interests above the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

He believes Gerry Adams is personally blocking welfare reform in Northern Ireland because it could lead to Sinn Féin, with its big election ambitions in the Republic, facing double-standard accusations that it supports austerity in the North but opposes it in the South.

Sinn Féin’s position on welfare reform could cost Northern Ireland more than £1 billion of cuts in supports and services over the next five years which would mean real hardship, says Hamilton.

“They are living on another planet economically and fiscally. I don’t like the realities of this any more than they do but you have got to accept the reality; you cannot stick your head in the sand and just hope they will go away, they are not going to go away. Reality will bite.”

While Adams has urged the Executive to unite against a “Thatcherite agenda”, Hamilton says the reality is that British chancellor George Osborne isn’t for turning. Adams insists that welfare cuts can be resisted but Hamilton produces a letter from Osborne’s number two in the Treasury, Danny Alexander, advising the Minister that “costs associated with non implementation will escalate . . .”

Penalties

On welfare reform a big responsibility falls on Hamilton. He makes the financial allocations to the various departments but says that financial penalties imposed on Stormont from Westminster are forcing him to cut back on budgets.

So far there have been penalties of just £13 million. But in October he is to announce further cuts of £87 million up to March next year, while in the following financial year the penalties will be £114 million. “And it starts to ratchet up quite considerably after that.”