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High price of reforms deadlock

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 22/05/2015

First Minister Peter Robinson
First Minister Peter Robinson

First Minister Peter Robinson has laid out the crisis looming at Stormont in easy to understand economics. His conclusion is that the power-sharing Assembly is inescapably doomed unless Sinn Fein sees sense over its opposition to welfare reform.

Already the impasse has cost Northern Ireland £200m in penalties so far, money that the province cannot afford to lose and which is affecting front line services. Mr Robinson's example of what one month's penalties could have paid for - 1,800 hip replacements - shows the scale of the waste.

It has to be accepted that the new Tory Government is determined to push ahead with its austerity programme and that the welfare reforms introduced elsewhere in the UK so far will only be the tip of the iceberg. Sinn Fein may want to portray itself to the electorate as an anti-austerity party, but it is as powerless to stop the Westminster cuts as King Canute was in holding back the tide.

What the parties at Stormont have achieved - and thought they had agreed in the Stormont House Agreement - is a way of mitigating the welfare cuts for existing claimants for three years and also for future claimants for the same period. In comparison to other regions of the UK, that is a gold-plated deal and one that reflects much credit on the parties - but only if they all can agree to implement this version of the reforms.

Sinn Fein apparently wants even more protection for claimants, but that is fantasy economics. In fact, some 20,000 people are being put out of work in the public sector, partly to finance the mitigated welfare deal.

If a deal cannot be agreed next week it seems that direct rule will be the eventual outcome, as civil servants would take over the running of departments and the province would be faced with swingeing cuts far in excess of anything proposed at present.

As well, Westminster would probably take over the implementation of welfare reform and local claimants would lose all chance of getting a better deal than their peers in other parts of the UK. For all its deficiencies, the province prefers to have its own administration, so let us not throw it away.

The First Minister has introduced a dose of common sense into a debate that seems to be going nowhere. The only light at the end of the tunnel is coming from the train that threatens to thunder over everyone in its path, leaving chaos in its wake.

Belfast Telegraph

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