Belfast Telegraph

Colum Eastwood: Sinn Fein said they'd stand up to Tories... then they rolled over

By SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

Sinn Fein are famed for telling a good story. Credit where credit is due, I think they've been pretty good at it too. The heart of their narrative told us they were the best negotiators in the land. That they and they alone were the strong men, that they and they alone would stay in the room for however long it took. That they and they alone wouldn't budge until their bottom lines were met.

Since the beginning of their political journey, they've voiced that story with an abundance of self-confidence and with very little humility. It's been a good story and they won plenty of votes on the back of it. But even the best of stories come to an end.

Last week's so-called 'Fresh Start' deal definitively marked that end. Much of that deal has been proven to be so transparently awful that Sinn Fein's chief negotiators are finding it difficult to hide their shame. And ashamed they should be.

After promising for two years they would stand up to the Tories, they've not only completely capitulated on their promises - they've surrendered their responsibilities to none other than George Osborne. They genuinely convinced many of this society's most vulnerable that their benefits would be protected. It is no wonder these same people are now so genuinely angry.

On welfare reform, they've negotiated away around £240m of protections for the most vulnerable. Bizarrely, they negotiated a package of mitigations on tax credits with David Cameron in 10 Downing Street when next door in number 11 his Chancellor was planning to announce they weren't even going ahead. By any measure, that's called getting your eye wiped.

Worse still, their chief negotiators voted to hand control of welfare powers away from the Assembly and over to the Tories for the next 12 months. These are the same Tories who plan to take £12bn out of the welfare budget. This is probably the first occasion where any nationalist or republican party willingly surrendered hard-won powers back into the hands of the British Government.

On the economy, they've negotiated a deficit for our future. While placing all their eggs in the corporation tax basket, they've failed to negotiate the infrastructure that will give this real effect. Reduced corporation tax is ineffective with reduced student numbers and an incomplete A5 and A6. Without this broader agenda of investment, business won't end up thanking Stormont for the mercy of a little less taxation in an otherwise arid economic environment.

Worst of all, their negotiators walked away from dealing with the past after swearing they would never abandon victims and survivors. It is telling they have not called for the British Government to publish the Bill. We have.

At this point a fair question to ask is what alternative was presented? It's the right question and a necessary one. There was an alternative. We in the SDLP presented seven comprehensive policy papers to the parties, mapping our way forward on the economy, welfare, the past and proposals on organised crime. Seven papers in total, Sinn Fein presented none.

That inability to put in the hard yards of policy development has led to Sinn Fein being sold this pup of a deal. Their long crafted story of skilled negotiation has been exposed as a myth. They're right to be rattled. Electorates are seldom forgiving of those who promise gold and deliver tin. Just ask Nick Clegg.

But whatever the difficulties of Sinn Fein, our real concern has to be difficulties which this deal will mean for this society. Dealing with those will necessitate a fundamental shift in our politics.

It's long since time that we got away from simply building stories and myths. They're not the stuff that good and healthy governance is made of. Making Northern Ireland work means building a new normal, where political parties are measured by the quality of their ideas and on their delivery for our people.

That's the SDLP I'm building. That's the SDLP which will be on offer at next May's elections.

Belfast Telegraph


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