Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Factional in-fighting at Stormont leaves us at mercy of Tories

The DUP believes the needy only have themselves to blame while Sinn Fein can't move beyond 'Brits out, but leave your chequebook behind'. Is it any wonder they can't do a deal on welfare reform, says Robin Wilson

No laughing matter: A protester resorts to irony to articulate her opposition to the Coalition's hugely controversial bedroom tax.

Talking past each other seems to have become the way of the two main parties in the Stormont Executive (when the others talk, they are just ignored). And the worst thing about it is not only that they don't understand each other, but they don't even recognise that this is so.

The stand-off over welfare 'reform' – the Conservative-dominated Government at Westminster would hardly call it 'welfare dismantling' – betrays the inability of either main group of politicians to realise how much they are imbued with sectarian narratives.

For it is not just on who-did-what-to-whom in the Troubles that they can't agree. They also can't even speak the same language on the big global issue of the moment: equality.

Welfare states that work, like Denmark, do so because progressive taxation pays for generous benefits for everyone, as required by need (sickness, unemployment), or the life cycle (childcare, pensions).

This means differentials in market incomes are significantly compressed when taxes and benefits are taken in to account and gender equality and social mobility are also high.

Because employment rates are high and the public goods on which private firms rely (like research and development) are in strong supply, economic performance is also high.

States that don't work, like (since the Thatcher years) the UK, have all the opposite features. Taxes on the wealthy are 'business-friendly' and so low and avoided, while means-tested benefits for the poor are correspondingly mean.

Inequality is high, wealth is celebrated and poverty stigmatised. Economic activity is skewed towards 'rent-seeking' – making money out of other people's money – by those who can and the performance of the real economy is mediocre.

The Democratic Unionist Party doesn't understand any of this because, with the exception of the Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, no one in the party has a clue about social models in the wider world. As a Protestant Party for Protestant People, why would they?

By default, they resort to their Old Testaments and come to the conclusion that poverty is a matter of individual moral failing – the same view as the minister for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith. Thus, in spite of Northern Ireland, as a high-poverty region, being a principal victim of his 'reforms', the DUP is perversely in favour of their broad thrust.

Worse, the animus between 'strivers' and 'skivers' which the Conservatives are keen to excite takes a visceral sectarian form in Northern Ireland, recalling old sectarian tropes about Catholics having large, welfare-dependent families.

These lie very near the surface of a party which has never accepted that discrimination was a feature of the "50 years of misrule" at Stormont last century.

Nor, however, does Sinn Fein have any grasp, because the party has never really found a successor to its implicit motto, as a Queen's politics professor once put it, of "Brits out – but leave the chequebook behind".

Obsessed, as it has been, with the relatively minor differences in welfare between Catholics and Protestants – though these residually remain, more than four decades after the demise of the Stormont ancien regime – it has been unable to say anything meaningful about the much larger chasm of inequality between social classes, and between men and women, in Northern Ireland, although this has far more impact on its core support.

After devolution was re-established on a power sharing basis in 1999, researchers assessing its relationship with equality interviewed a senior Sinn Fein politician – one of the brightest – about the party's much-vaunted "equality agenda". Asked to volunteer items for that agenda, all he could think of was the Irish language.

And here Sinn Fein's dogmatic resistance to participation at Westminster means it can only get involved in what one former regional political leader called the "karaoke debate" that follows in Northern Ireland on matters already essentially determined on a UK-wide level – as with the Welfare Reform Act.

It is not practicable for Northern Ireland, Scotland and/or Wales to elaborate distinctive welfare systems, though the Executive should at least have taken a passing interest in the profound debates which have taken place in Scotland and Wales about enhanced fiscal autonomy.

And it is utterly pointless to tilt at political windmills by thinking the juggernaut of welfare "reform" can be stopped at the Irish Sea.

This especially so as Sinn Fein has supported the other conservative parties at Stormont in demanding a reduction in corporation tax, which would deprive the finance minister of hundreds of millions a year, and so – alongside the Executive's persistent failure to put the unpaid fraction of water bills onto the rates, costing hundreds of millions more – deprive him of the wriggle room needed for the welfare cuts to be blunted.

There is some hope that that juggernaut will stall. Duncan Smith's flagship "universal credit" scheme has proved a hugely costly technological nightmare and may never be rolled out across the UK. And Labour, looking increasingly likely to be re-elected next year after the floods have exposed the insanity of austerity-driven cuts in flood defences, has pledged to repeal the bedroom tax.

But, as usual, the sound and fury involving the two main protagonists at Stormont will be neither here nor there.