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Welfare reform: Waiting to see who'll blink first in Stormont

The DUP warns darkly of £2.8bn in cuts to front line services if there is no agreement on the Welfare Reform Bill today. Martin McGuinness believes it's just another manufactured deadline and an 11th-hour reprieve will be forthcoming. So, who's right? Malachi O'Doherty reports

Published 26/05/2015

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
The new Northern Ireland Corporation Tax Bill in Theresa Villiers’ hands
The Kop Stand being demolished
A view of the main stand at Casement Park in Belfast
Celebrations over the IRA’s ceasefire in 1994 on the Falls Road in west Belfast

Today the Assembly faces a do-or-die debate and, unexpectedly, without First Minister Peter Robinson, who has spent much of the last week underscoring its urgency.

He has been saying that a failure to finalise the Bill on welfare reform, as agreed before Christmas, will jeopardise the entire political set-up.

That message has not got through to Sinn Fein and the SDLP, who both calculate that they have more room for manoeuvre in their strategies to exact more concessions for the poor and disadvantaged.

They think there is more work to be done - and more time in which to do it - to mitigate the effects of Tory welfare cuts and to provide protections that are not available in the rest of the UK.

If the Bill fails it will not even be through a majority in the Assembly opposing it.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have lodged petitions of concerns. This is a device established to protect either community in Northern Ireland being disadvantaged by a majority vote. That this isn't a specifically nationalist issue hardly matters.

If the Bill falls, as it apparently must, unless someone has a change of mind then the mitigations negotiated through the Stormont House talks before Christmas would not even apply - let alone the more rigorous versions that they are currently looking for. The SDLP and Sinn Fein don't even get what they have, let alone what they want.

The bedroom tax, for instance, which claimants in Northern Ireland are spared, would apply. And the whole prospect of the devolved Assembly being able to legislate for further welfare cuts expected from Chancellor George Osborne in July would seem implausible.

Robinson's prediction, and preferred outcome, was that if the Assembly could not pass welfare cuts, even with local adaptations, then it should hand the whole responsibility back to Westminster.

That's not something that could sit well with a republican project to take more powers to Stormont and to progressively erode the link with London.

So this is a crisis that can get progressively deeper. And today is the deadline.

But is it? If Sinn Fein and the SDLP don't believe that, why should the rest of us?

All experience of the peace process negotiations over the past 21 years tells you that deadlines don't matter. There is always some slack in the system, always some further negotiating space that no one previously noticed.

And those of us who followed that closely, and got emotionally bound up in the hopes and fears that yet another deadline would make a difference, finally got fed up with it.

Politicians stomp fretfully about and tell us that the whole business will come crashing down unless someone makes a brave decision or meets the terms agreed to at the last critical deadline, or the one before that.

And most of us feel we have been here a hundred times before and all the puffing turned out to be just hot air.

That is not just the experience of the disillusioned observer; it is the experience of the party leaders.

How many times has Martin McGuinness faced a British official, or Prime Minister, and been told: agree to this by Friday or the whole thing's off?

Well, start in the autumn of 1994, when he was told that the IRA had to declare that its ceasefire was permanent. Or at the first demand for a start to decommissioning as a precondition of entering talks.

He gave them their decommissioning 10 years later, and even then held out on accepting the police for yet another two years.

So, McGuinness is an old hand at this. If he really is confronting a deadline that really is a deadline, then that is the sort of hurdle he has never faced before, because every other deadline turned out to be a hurdle he could walk through without breaking his stride.

The question before him today is whether the logic of the peace process prevails. That logic, as enunciated by Fergus Finlay, then an Irish diplomat, was that no agreement was worth a penny candle if Sinn Fein wasn't part of it. It appears that David Cameron does not follow this logic so closely.

Still, Sinn Fein continues to smile blithely at the further stentorian reminders from Arlene Foster that today is crunch time. He's saying, in effect, would you hold on a while and let's all make a different deal with each other and with the Scottish and the Welsh and stand up to the Tories together.

From the unionist perspective, this is a bit like suggesting you build a dam during a flood, install a fire escape when the house is already in flames.

It is the proposal of a person who is not buying into the urgency and who never expects the end of the game to be the end of the game. Because it never has been before.

In every negotiation that Sinn Fein has engaged in, it has always allowed for the prospect of a total crash, as if it didn't ultimately matter. In 2000, two years after the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, after the release of all the prisoners, it still refused to be accountable for the IRA's refusal to decommission weapons, or ask the IRA to even start to disarm.

Drawing out the game was more important than ending it, and if that meant the collapse of Stormont, it would let that happen and blame others. So what is going to happen today?

Foster, the new Finance Minister, says that she will be forced to make cuts of more than £600m, that she could not do that and that, therefore, the Civil Service will come in and make even bigger cuts.

This logically means that schools and hospitals would be told to sack teachers and close wards. We have already seen, in the cuts made so far, that departments have preferred to hack into the voluntary sector than sack civil servants, so away with all those people to whom Government responsibilities have been devolved.

And what about the big-budget projects like Casement Park and Windsor Park?

Well, it might be up to a civil servant to run a pen through them.

But, presumably, with this collapse of the Stormont House Agreement, the plan to cut corporation tax would also fall.

Along with the failure of welfare reform (a nice euphemism for cuts) would go all the other elements of the Stormont House Agreement, procedures for dealing with parades and the past, facilitating the creation of an Opposition at Stormont.

But the Deputy First Minister thinks we are all just rushing into this and need to go back and talk to the other devolved regions and put together a cunning plan.

Pressure? What pressure?

Belfast Telegraph

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