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Realism needed in welfare row

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 25/05/2015

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Once again a crisis is looming in the power-sharing administration at Stormont. It seems that every time a difficult issue arises the default position is to march towards the abyss before finding some compromise, or else putting the matter on the long finger.

This latest threat to the very being of the institutions is the impasse over welfare reform. Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey will bring forward the Welfare Reform Bill tomorrow, but it will be defeated through the petition of concern signed by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

That could set off a chain reaction, which would see the Assembly and Executive fall and the reintroduction of direct rule. The parties must know that, whatever their failings, people prefer power-sharing to being governed directly from Westminster by people without a mandate here.

So, is there any hope of a solution? The proposal put forward today in this newspaper by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness - for the Executive parties to meet with their counterparts in Scotland and Wales to oppose the Government's austerity programme - is one worth considering.

Before the election the parties here, especially the DUP, were hopeful of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament, but the reality is that they have little sway at Westminster. However, if the regional Assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were to have a united voice and approach, there is some possibility of tempering the worst of the cuts.

But Sinn Fein must also be realistic. What is on offer in Stormont's Welfare Bill is the best deal for claimants anywhere in the UK, even if it doesn't meet Sinn Fein's demands.

Its chances of getting a better deal are slim but worth exploring, although the time constraints on the Stormont parties before agreeing a budget are immensely tight.

Its chances of getting greater fiscal control through devolution of more powers from Westminster are even slimmer, and the collective Executive's financial track record is hardly inspiring. Realistically, they are not bargaining from a position of strength.

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