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Gravest threat yet to Stormont

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 27/05/2015

Parliament buildings at Stormont, Belfast
Parliament buildings at Stormont, Belfast

The crisis facing Stormont following the blocking of the Welfare Reform Bill has been so well signposted that now there are few words left to convey the seriousness of the situation. But make no mistake, this is the gravest threat yet to the devolved administration.

But, more importantly, it is the public, and particularly those on benefits, who will end up picking up the tab for the failure of politicians to reach a realistic compromise and make a mature decision.

The future could be very bleak indeed thanks to Sinn Fein and the SDLP using the petition of concern device to block the Bill, which everyone agrees would give benefits claimants here the best deal in the UK.

The DUP's Finance Minister says the failure to agree welfare reform means a £600m black hole in the budget, which she is not prepared to put forward. That in turn could lead to senior civil servants taking over the financial reins at Stormont, and even the collapse of the Assembly and a return to direct rule.

The consequences of that are almost too horrendous to contemplate. Deep, swingeing cuts in public spending, further reductions in welfare benefits, the withdrawal of powers to vary the rate of corporation tax to stimulate inward investment and economic growth, and no funding for the rebuilding of Casement Park or Windsor Park are just some of the likely outcomes.

Sinn Fein, which is portraying itself, not just in Northern Ireland but also in the Republic, as the anti-austerity party, probably reckons that blocking welfare reform is just another exercise in brinkmanship that will bring Westminster to heel.

After all, it is a well-worn tactic and not just by republicans, although they are the most overt as witnessed by dragging their heels over decommissioning of arms and supporting the PSNI. But it appears the tactic will not work this time. A government without a single MP here is hardly likely to start offering Northern Ireland dollops of largesse while tightening the belt like a noose around the rest of the UK.

It is difficult not to see this crisis as a failure of the system of government here. Finding consensus among a coalition of parties with very differing outlooks on a whole range of contentious issues is nigh impossible and the situation is made worse by the abuse of petitions of concern, which were only meant to protect minority rights, not stifle the legislative process or even defy logic.

Belfast Telegraph

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