Sinn Féin has been attacked in the Northern Assembly for supporting a motion handing over responsibility for welfare cuts to Westminster rather than to Stormont.
The DUP and Sinn Féin had sufficient numbers in the Assembly to push through a legislative consent motion that allows Westminster, instead of the Northern Executive, to legislate for British government welfare reform.
The SDLP, in particular, complained that Sinn Féin, by endorsing the motion, was diluting devolution and handing back some powers to Westminster.
“Only a matter of weeks ago, Sinn Féin would have described this as a huge, serious mistake but now Sinn Féin is doing Tory austerity – and in spades,” said SDLP deputy leader Fearghal McKinney.
“We are being asked to diminish aspects of devolution that the SDLP, for one, fought hard to achieve. We reject that.
“We are being asked to hand over to the Tories, or Thatcher’s children, as Martin McGuinness likes to call them, decisions on legislating on welfare.”
During the day-long debate, Sinn Féin faced the kind of criticism it was likely to run into in both Northern Ireland and the Republic in the coming months ahead of Dáil and Assembly elections.
By signing up to welfare changes, the party is likely to be accused of supporting austerity in Northern Ireland but opposing it in the Republic.
SDLP Assembly member Alex Attwood forced a recorded vote after Sinn Féin speaker Mitchel McLaughlin appeared prepared to accept an orally declared vote.
The motion was carried by 70 votes to 22 with the SDLP and the UUP the main parties to vote against it.
Alliance joined the DUP and Sinn Féin in supporting the motion.
The British government has refused to provide any more money to lessen the effects of British government welfare reform.
Under the Fresh Start: the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan, however, the Executive is to find £585 million from its own resources over four years to mitigate the effects of these cuts in Northern Ireland.
What happens thereafter is unclear. Were the Conservatives to lose the next election, it is possible some or all of the welfare cuts could be reversed.
Earlier this year, an attempt to introduce a welfare Bill in the Assembly failed in the face of Sinn Féin and SDLP opposition.
By handing responsibility to Westminster by way of the legislative consent motion, the new welfare legislation will be speedily introduced.
While Westminster is bringing in the necessary legislation, welfare will be administered from Northern Ireland by DUP Minister for Social Development Mervyn Storey.
In an attempt to embarrass Sinn Féin during yesterday’s debate, Mr McKinney cited previous comments by Sinn Féin politicians such as Martin McGuinness opposing British government welfare reform.
Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said the Northern Executive was acting as a “bulwark” against the British government’s austerity policies.
“I think what is being proposed and agreed in part of this implementation plan gives us protection measures better than exist anywhere on these islands for people who are struggling,” he said.