Analysis: Crisis on welfare changes nearing climax as Stormont limps on

  Minister for Finance Arlene Foster,  the DUP’s Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson: Sinn Feín is leading the charge against the welfare change with the SDLP.  Photograph: Kelvin Boyes

Minister for Finance Arlene Foster, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson: Sinn Feín is leading the charge against the welfare change with the SDLP. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes

 

There was considerable public and indeed political sympathy with the comment of Alliance Assembly member Stewart Dickson yesterday when he referred to the feeling of “utter exasperation and the profound sense of déjà vu” at the latest crisis afflicting Stormont.

It’s yet another brinkmanship battle, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP insisting now is not the time to roll over on accepting welfare changes. Unionist and Alliance politicians feel that battle is long over and lost and failure to move on welfare could topple the Stormont institutions.

There were general good wishes for First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson and his family in the Assembly chamber yesterday. Senior party members Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson told reporters while he is treated for his heart condition it is “business as usual”.

Nonetheless, it has to be a significant concern for the British and Irish governments Stormont is missing a politician with a keen strategic sense. In the meantime, there is stalemate and the Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers must consider what is to happen next. The first request she is likely to face will be from the DUP asking her on behalf of the British government to take over responsibility for welfare from the Executive.

Black hole

Villiers is anxious to resist that demand. She wants the Northern politicians to sort out this mess themselves. But the next pressure is to fully implement the North’s £10 billion budget. However, in the absence of agreement on welfare, that budget, according to DUP Minister of Finance Arlene Foster, will suffer a “black hole” for the rest of this financial year of up to £600 million. This, she believes, is unsustainable.

Without agreement on the budget, the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance could be called in to implement a reduced budget.

Moreover, again because of the absence of agreement on welfare, part or all of the Stormont House Agreement with its promise of £2 billion over the coming five years could be lost. Also sacrificed would be proposals to deal with the past and to help victims, as well as reductions in corporation tax that could create up to 35,000 jobs.

So, behind all the public exasperation and cynicism, there is a lot at stake here.

Sinn Féin is leading the charge against the welfare change and the SDLP is following in its wake. But the big question for both parties is what will be the consequences of continuing to dig in.

The DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Alliance contend that, if Sinn Féin and the SDLP refuse to budge, welfare recipients won’t be any better off while some of the gains made in the Stormont House Agreement could be thrown away. In response, Sinn Féin and the SDLP argue further negotiation could yield more concessions. But these are two parties who don’t have any particular leverage with David Cameron or George Osborne.

In the Assembly chamber yesterday, there were assertions by unionist politicians that Sinn Féin in the North was being dictated to by “Gerry Adams and the party’s Southern command”. It was claimed that, ahead of an Irish general election, the party didn’t want to be accused of accepting austerity north of the Border.

This is indeed a political crisis but the climax hasn’t been reached yet. Stormont probably can limp on for another few weeks before the really hard decisions have to be taken. Still, there is no doubt the deadlock over welfare reform has the potential to bring down the Northern Executive and Assembly. But there is still time to avert that collapse.