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Stormont welfare reform: Patient may already be dead by time antidote is found

By Liam Clarke

Published 30/07/2015

The use of foodbanks has grown under austerity in the UK as welfare benefits have been slashed to help balance the books
The use of foodbanks has grown under austerity in the UK as welfare benefits have been slashed to help balance the books

The Greeks, ancient as well as modern, had words for the sort of situation some politicians are now blundering into. They called it a Cadmean victory.

Cadmus, the legendary founder of Thebes, tasked his followers to kill the dragon guarding a spring that could supply water for the new city. All he sent perished, so when he went himself he found that there was nobody left to benefit.

Our resource battle over welfare reform could end the same way. It is slowly draining us of finance, so that even if it is solved at this late stage, we won't gain.

Even claimants will have mixed fortunes; figures show only a third would be worse off, whereas another third would benefit and the remaining third would be better off. Spending on benefits would still increase, but not as swiftly as before.

If we did accept welfare reform, it is open to Stormont to cut other budgets or raise taxes locally to help disadvantaged claimants. Most societies in Europe and the developed world have already made these sorts of decisions about spending priorities.

They are tough calls, but the fact that we are subsidised to the tune of up to £12bn a year makes it a far easier choice for us than for other societies like the Republic, Greece or even Britain.

Perversely, the equipment to turn routine political decisions into intractable stand-offs were labelled as "trust and confidence-building" measures when they were handed out as part of the peace process.

Petitions of concern were first conceived to prevent gross discrimination. We imagined that they would be needed if, for instance, one side at Stormont wanted to push through a measure to outlaw the Orange Order or the GAA.

Any 30 MLAs can invoke the petition, which meant that a majority of unionists and nationalists voting separately was needed for the motion to proceed.

The petition has hardly if ever been used in the way envisaged. Instead, it has been used to block same-sex marriage (it would have failed narrowly anyway, but by a decreased margin each time), abortion measures - anything a big party doesn't like. These petitions should be abolished or severely limited now. They were meant to build confidence, but instead they have been used to construct defensive earthworks around deep ministerial silos.

They undermine joined-up government and they are becoming more common. Since the restoration of devolution in 1998 the device has been used a total of 63 times - more than half of those in the past two years.

Other measures, like mandatory power-sharing instead of negotiated coalition, and the requirement of the First and Deputy First Minister to agree anything that goes before the Executive, are more difficult.

They address the Sinn Fein fear of a return to majority rule, with it being kicked out of the Government or ignored.

Yet we have seen that, when parties are given powers to block measures, they will do so as often as they can.

The political currency becomes devalued as more and more of it is wasted on petty issues. Everything becomes a principle when you are able to simply veto it.

It is unrealistic to just blame the politicians. The leading figures have been around a long time and know instinctively what will appeal to voters, because we have told them on the doorsteps so often.

It is no surprise that, when politicians are elected to keep an eye on the other side, they tend to avoid the risk of building bridges or making concessions.

Yet bridges, concessions and avoiding stalemate are what good government is all about.

Our leaders are in danger of ending up like Cadmus in any moment of imagined triumph. Like him, they may discover that they no longer have enough followers to benefit from the points they score over one another.

They will find the most gifted of our young people have left, that less of the population who remain are voting, that power-sharing has collapsed in acrimony and that investors are running a mile.

That is the sort of situation which has created street disorder - and worse - in the past.

Belfast Telegraph

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