Belfast Telegraph

Welfare reform bill: Time to suspend this farce

Stormont cannot be kept going just because the parties don't want it to shut down, says Alex Kane

Just before 12.30 yesterday afternoon - about two hours into the welfare reform debate - Alex Maskey said: "Parties reached an agreement in the Stormont House talks. We all agreed on that. We may disagree about what precisely we agreed, but that's an argument for another day."

Go on, read it again, because that, in a nutshell, sums up the problem of local politics.

Back in 1998 the mantra of negotiation was that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". Just over a decade later it had been changed to "nothing is disagreed until everything is disagreed". Today they can't even agree what they're disagreeing about. Which is why we shift from one crisis to another.

What we saw played out yesterday - and have seen played out on so many occasions since 1998 - is the inevitable consequence of two power blocs who are determined to hinder and undermine each other rather than help and shore each other up.

The subject for debate is actually immaterial: so, irrespective of whether it's finance; parades; legacy issues; education, socio/moral/religious matters; a shared future, or welfare, the DUP and Sinn Fein will take opposing sides and fight on as if nothing has really changed since the mid-1990s.

They fight each other because they believe that's what their core vote wants them to do. And, more often than not, the UUP (along with the TUV and Ukip) will row in behind the DUP, while the SDLP will end up in the same voting lobby as Sinn Fein.

In other words, when push comes to shove both sides will continue to favour the worldview of unionism or nationalism rather than try to blend orange and green into something broadly acceptable to both traditions.

They fight each other because they know that there are no electoral or institutional consequences for failing to agree. No matter how often they wrestle each other to the brink, they know that a Prime Minister or Taoiseach will step in with a safety net, or sticking plasters, or cash.

And because they expect to be rescued, they will continue to behave recklessly and stupidly. For all of yesterday's histrionics, the parties know the so-called "deadline" will be stretched.

At what point would the collapse of the Assembly become a possibility? Well, that would require a willingness of the British and Irish Governments to call it a day on devolution and come up with a mixture of direct rule and joint authority. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

David Cameron has enough on his plate with the SNP, an EU referendum and more cuts to want to be lumbered with Northern Ireland. And Enda Kenny doesn't want it on his plate either, particularly in the run-up to a general election next year.

Yet if the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot resolve this latest impasse, doesn't collapse become inevitable? Peter Robinson certainly hinted at it in an article for the Belfast Telegraph last Friday: "Let's be clear, if the Bill does not pass and the Assembly and Executive does not approve the budget with £604m of cuts, then the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance and Personnel has a legal duty to issue a budget based on levels set down in law and which give him no discretion. In these circumstances it is inconceivable that the head of the Civil Service would do anything other than immediately visit Whitehall to inform them that Northern Ireland departments would breach their spending limits. The Assembly could not survive such a scenario."

Yesterday in the Assembly Maskey also put a price on saving it: "What is very clear is that the fundamental principles we stood for were endorsed by that high number of people. They are the commitments we made during the election and they are the commitments we are going to hold to dearly as we proceed.

"What will happen in the weeks and months ahead, I do not know, but I do know this - and Martin McGuinness made the point very clearly earlier: Sinn Fein is not remotely interested in these institutions collapsing, but, equally, these institutions are only worthwhile if they are delivering for the people that we collectively represent, and I mean collectively as in all of the parties here."

So, there you have it. Robinson says the Assembly cannot survive if the Bill fails to pass, while Maskey says it's not worth keeping if the Bill does pass.

But unless either the DUP or Sinn Fein withdraws from the Executive (because they don't like the outcome of a vote), or Cameron pulls the plug because the Executive cannot honour the financial commitments supposedly agreed last December, then the Assembly is not going to collapse.

Some people think that both the DUP and Sinn Fein would like an early election: the argument being that the SDLP looks weak and battered and ripe for picking off by Sinn Fein, while the DUP wants to halt the UUP in its tracks before it builds up any momentum based on its general election success. But since an election wouldn't actually solve the problem, I'm not sure that the Secretary of State would be keen to facilitate one.

And I'm pretty sure that Sinn Fein wouldn't stand meekly aside if, during a period of suspension, the Secretary of State moved the legislation required to implement the Welfare Bill. That would make it look very weak. As would agreeing to the handing back of welfare powers to Westminster.

But if early elections and a period of suspension don't resolve the problem, the British and Irish aren't keen on direct rule and neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP (nor SDLP/UUP/Alliance) actually wants the Assembly to fall, then how do we get ourselves out of this present mess?

Yes, I think it's likely that there will be some sort of last-gasp "fix" (so expect more crisis talks over the next few days), but that just means that there'll be another crisis further down the line.

Here's the real question: does the Assembly, in its present form, deserve to survive? My answer would be a plain, unambiguous no. That said, I still think long-term change here is more likely to flow from devolution than from direct rule.

So, how do we keep the Assembly and ensure that it works? Suspend the Assembly in its present form for six months, reconstitute it as a negotiating body, set it an agenda covering opposition, collective accountability/responsibility, a coherent and consensual Programme for Government, legacy, culture et al and then if - and only if - they have reached collective agreement call an election.

And if they don't agree? Then close it.

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