Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Clock is ticking on welfare reform

The controversial issue of welfare reform is complex, but it is one of the most important issues facing Stormont, and one on which, sadly, there is as yet no agreement.

The Westminster Welfare Reform Act, which was passed nearly two years ago, is attempting a radical shake-up in the payment of benefits, but as it is a devolved matter, it cannot be applied in Northern Ireland without the agreement of the Executive.

It is currently a classic stand-off, more important in some ways than the failure to deal with flags, parades and the past.

While the Stormont parties fail to agree, the financial clock is ticking, and this means that every month's delay in implementing the measure is costing us the considerable sum of £5m.

This is accumulating into a significant sum, which would be much better spent in other important areas such as health provision, but still the main parties are wrangling at Stormont.

The DUP is accusing Sinn Fein of reneging on a compromise deal which was reached last summer, and claims that the republicans are deliberately blocking its way on to the Executive's agenda.

Sinn Fein in turn says that it is not prepared to acquiesce to the "Tory" agenda, which is actually much wider than that of the Conservative Party. Sinn Fein claims that it is working to produce significant changes to the measure as applied to Northern Ireland, and that it is doing this to protect the most vulnerable and low paid. This, however, is a form of political brinkmanship which could backfire, and therefore penalise the people Sinn Fein claims it wants to protect. There are elements in the new welfare package which do not have the approval of this newspaper and of many other people, but in the end it is a matter for political leadership.

Sinn Fein faces the difficulty of appearing to act for the benefit of the worse off in the Republic, and yet it is being asked to back a measure in Northern Ireland which may adversely affect many of those on welfare.

However, the party must take responsibility for the undue delay in implementing the welfare legislation here, because we urgently need a sensible compromise on a vexed issue which can only get worse the longer it runs. This is a time for action, and not for political posturing by Sinn Fein.

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