Sinn Fein the party holding out as direct rule and deep cuts looming
Sinn Fein is the main hold-out party on welfare reform, and there is no sign of it blinking. One has to wonder if it is developing an exit strategy.
Michelle Gildernew and Paul Maskey, two of its MPs, put the situation plainly this week in speeches on the fringes of the UK Labour Party conference in Manchester.
"Tory cuts have not been implemented in the north due to our party stalling the passage of the Bill," Mr Maskey said.
Both MPs pledged they would hold the line despite clear statements from Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Secretary of State, that Labour would not change the substance of welfare reform if it takes power. It will abolish the bedroom tax, though we have got an exemption from that anyway, and it will review Universal Credit but keep within spending limits. It also intends to cut Child Benefit by £1 a week.
Since our benefit spending is allocated on the basis of what is spent in England, and since we don't raise enough taxes to pay our own way, there is no real way out of this, even with a change of government or the devolution of fiscal powers. Yet imposing cuts goes against the grain for Sinn Fein.
The party's big priority is to grow its vote in the Republic where it is campaigning against austerity. Welfare reform here would reduce the rate of increase in the welfare budget rather than actually cutting it, but that is still not the image Sinn Fine wants. At the same time it does not want to be seen as the party that collapses the institutions because it could not take hard financial decisions.
Its tactic to avoid either reducing spending or collapsing Stormont is to face down the British and, if that fails as seems inevitable, then to vote the changes down on the floor of the Assembly. "If they refuse to bring the Bill forward, then the issue should go to the people, by way of an election to the Assembly. We fear no election," Mr Maskey argued.
This issue cannot be solved by an election here anymore than taking a vote on Isis would end beheadings in Syria. The level of money allocated to us is out of our control, a Westminster matter not a Stormont one even if Sinn Fein got an overwhelming local mandate to change it.
If this continues, we are heading towards direct rule with deep cuts imposed from London, not Sinn Fein, and a strong consultative role for Dublin in our affairs while devolution is renegotiated from scratch.
Such an outcome may have its attractions for Sinn Fein.