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Newton Emerson: Stormont’s last collapse a warning of its next

DUP and Sinn Féin seem to have inability to take tough devolved spending decisions

The three-year collapse of Stormont has caused people to forget its previous three-year de facto collapse, between 2012 and 2015. But the central dispute from that earlier period has resurfaced with a vengeance in the current general election campaign. This bodes ill for the restoration of devolution, tentatively expected in the first half of next year.

Introducing UK-wide welfare reforms to Northern Ireland caused Sinn Féin to effectively go on strike from 2012, bringing executive business to a halt. Two talks processes failed to clear the deadlock. In 2015, the DUP threatened to walk out and cause an actual collapse. The matter was finally resolved in the Fresh Start agreement, where the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance voted to hand welfare powers back to Westminster and let the British government impose reform, in return for a £585 million four-year mitigation package to protect and prepare benefit claimants in Northern Ireland.

The UUP had already walked out into informal opposition by this point. The SDLP refused to back the deal and entered opposition months later. Welfare reform permanently shattered the Belfast Agreement model of powersharing.

None of these details are too arcane to have been flung around in real anger over the past few weeks, with the SDLP attacking Sinn Féin and Alliance for bringing in changes and handing back powers. Sinn Féin has criticised the SDLP for leaving the executive, while Alliance has accused the SDLP of misrepresentation. There has also been some sniping between the unionist parties.


It is not entirely bizarre to rehash this old dispute with the Westminster mitigation package about to run out. What is bizarre is the squabbling over who did what in 2015 compared with the lack of rancour over an Irish language Act – the issue officially blocking Stormont’s return.

Stir the pot

The DUP has become noticeably more relaxed on the subject during the election campaign, despite attempts by loyalists and the Ulster Unionist Party to stir the pot.

On Monday, DUP leader Arlene Foster was almost serene by her standards as she told UTV her party would legislate for Irish. Provisions on Ulster-Scots will have to be added for political cover, which some Irish language campaigners consider an insult. However, Sinn Féin and the DUP were willing to fudge this in a deal they almost reached in 2018. Winding down the language dispute feels like bringing the crisis of the past three years to a close.

The eruption of passions from the preceding crisis makes it feel like the more serious long-term threat.

Total public spending in Northern Ireland has never fallen, even during the financial crash. The peace process floats on an ever-rising tide of money

Language legislation is to a large extent exactly the sort of problem Stormont was set up to address: unionist-versus-nationalist identity politics. Once Sinn Féin and the DUP reach a deal, they should slip fairly easily back into their established trenches.

Welfare reform is the opposite. It involves making challenging adjustments to universal public services to balance the executive’s budget. Yet the unspoken understanding behind devolution since the Belfast Agreement has been that more funding will always be available to avoid such painful decisions. Total public spending in Northern Ireland has never fallen, even during the financial crash. The peace process floats on an ever-rising tide of money.

No small achievement

Fresh Start was an excellent deal for claimants and no small achievement by Sinn Féin and the DUP, but it did not truly resolve the problem. It just handed it back to London, in return for more money. Fresh Start also agreed to cut public-sector employment but this involved an excessively generous redundancy scheme, funded with £700 million of borrowing. For Stormont, the tide has never gone out, nor is there any expectation it will.

Asked by UTV on Monday if there is any point bringing Stormont back without reforming its operation, Foster said: “What we need is reform and what we need is money. We need the two coming together.”

However, there is a case that more money lets Stormont duck wider reform of how Northern Ireland is governed.

One of the pressures building to restore devolution is a crisis in the health service, with one-fifth of the North’s population now on a waiting list. This is as much a question of structural changes as of funding – difficult choices must be made on rationalising smaller hospitals.

Alternatively, a one-off extra £1 billion would clear the waiting lists, although without structural reform they will creep up again even faster.

No prizes for guessing what the DUP and Sinn Féin will ask for in return for a devolution deal.

Stormont’s failings in this regard are hardly unique. The SNP returned welfare powers to London this year and has also mismanaged health. Populist nationalist parties, a description that applies as much to the DUP as Sinn Féin, seem to have a particular inability to take tough devolved spending decisions.

But as populist English nationalism engulfs the Conservative Party, how long will the cash keep flowing to Northern Ireland?