Benefits revelations will shock
Sinn Fein's stance on welfare reform is becoming more difficult to credibly sustain as details of the benefits paid to families in Northern Ireland are revealed. Today we have the shocking revelation that 10 families are being paid an average of £56,700 a year on state handouts.
That is well over twice the average wage and it would take a salary of £85,000 a year to enable someone to take home that level of pay after tax.
Yes, these are exceptional cases but they highlight the fact that a substantial number of families here are receiving benefits well in excess of the limits set elsewhere in the UK.
Some 12,000 families take in more than £23,000 a year, the figure which David Cameron says will be the cap on benefits in other regions if his government is returned to power. Around 6,600 families receive more than £30,000 a year, again well in excess of the average wage. Sinn Fein is still refusing to agree to Northern Ireland's welfare reform legislation even though it is a more generous system that exists in other parts of the UK. The party wants claimants here to be insulated against any loss of income under the reform.
The statistics above show that will be at a massive cost to the Northern Ireland budget.
But the party also wants future claimants to be protected and that is financial nonsense. Sinn Fein has been told that there will be no further money available from the Treasury to fund the reforms they want and protecting current and future claimants would therefore only come at a crippling cost to services here right across the public sector.
The glimmer of hope in all this is that the parties are still talking about how to break this latest impasse on welfare reform.
The mood music is encouraging, with the Secretary of State saying that progress has been made, but unless Sinn Fein softens its absolutist stance it is difficult to see how this particular circle can be squared.
Already the dispute over welfare reform has cost us tens of millions of pounds and on a day when we learn that Queen's University will no longer be associated with the Belfast Festival because of budget cuts we have to accept that benefits claimants cannot be totally exempted from the harsh facts of life that everyone else has to face. Certainly, people entitled to benefits deserve a fair income, but they should not be elevated to the position where working families look at them in envy.