Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Time is of essence... Sinn Fein must bite bullet now

Liam Clarke
Liam Clarke

Sinn Fein needs to blink on welfare reform, and do so quickly. Things will come to a head in October, but in the meantime the meter is ticking.

Then there will be a new monitoring round and the Executive will be asked how it will make savings, which are required to make up the cost of running a more generous welfare payment regime than England and Wales.

It is easy to understand where the party is coming from. It is opposed to cuts in the Republic, where it is in opposition, and wants to maintain a consistent line here; Gerry Adams has spelled that much out in recent statements. The Irish election in 2016, the anniversary of the Rising, offers the glittering prize of getting into government on both sides of the border at once.

Republicans are understandably concerned at the impact that reducing the planned changes in welfare spending will have on voters. "The percentage of people in receipt of disability benefits is higher in the North of Ireland than anywhere else in Ireland or Britain... Sinn Féin will continue to oppose the imposition of these cuts at the behest of a Cabinet of Tory millionaires and we encourage others to join with us" said Jennifer McCann.

Yet, however heartfelt such pledges may be, not implementing the reforms and simply spending money we don't have is madness.

The harsh reality is that we aren't an independent country which can run up a deficit. We are subsidised by the British exchequer under a devolved settlement. If we overspend, London simply claws it back out of our next payment.

The strain on our budgets is severe. In health, we are in danger of breaking the law and endangering patient safety if we do not close the growing funding gap. To reduce the damage, our Executive needs to take hard, realistic decisions, not strike postures. Our politicians have their budget handed to them on a plate. They need to find a way to manage what they are allocated so as to build up the economy and create jobs.

Lifting people out of benefits is the best available way to reduce the welfare bill and improve living standards.