No-one would pretend that the welfare reforms are perfect. There are concerns about the amount of money that will be taken out of the system in Northern Ireland due to our higher uptake of disability living allowance and the higher proportion of households with children. Stories of hardship caused by the reforms in Britain are disheartening, even alarming in some cases. Yet it is undeniable that the benefits bill must be reduced and that there is evidence that a significant number of claimants are cheating the system.
Even given that background, the current posturing by Sinn Fein is disingenuous. Welfare benefits are not a devolved matter. On other matters our devolved administration can decide on its funding priorities but it cannot go it alone on benefits unless granted powers to raise taxes to prohibitive levels. Sinn Fein may argue that it is taking a principled stand, but the truth is that by refusing to sign up to the Welfare Bill we could lose out by up to £200m a year by 2015. Indeed the meter would start running in January next.
Quite simply, we cannot pretend that we can have it both ways; that we can continue to benefit from the Treasury – we get back more than we raise in taxes – while people in other parts of the UK suffer from the reforms. Northern Ireland has been largely insulated from the full effects of the recession and cuts in expenditure but, realistically, we cannot expect that situation to continue indefinitely.
If Sinn Fein really wants to press its case for special treatment for Northern Ireland, then the place to do it is at Westminster where the legislation lies. Given the progress the party has made over the years in abandoning former stances could, or should, the day be postponed when its MPs can take their arguments to the floor of the House of Commons? That is one arena where they could effectively protect the interests of their constituents.