Belfast Telegraph

The clock is now ticking down on Stormont survival

By Brian Rowan

The Assembly returns from its summer recess in less than seven weeks' time with its very future on the line. Meanwhile, the stand-off over welfare reform is costing nearly £300,000 a day.

Those images of the riot in north Belfast that spread like a bushfire across social media and onto television and into the newspapers delivered a message. After all the talking of the Haass/O'Sullivan and, then, the Stormont House negotiations, this street issue of parading, in this corner of the city, is far from resolved.

And it is not just about marching and not marching. Parading is not the only stand-off, but an illustration of much bigger disagreements. In the here and now, politics is walking - or stamping - on the thinnest of ice.

There are disagreements about agreements and growing concern about welfare reform and budgets and the future of the political institutions.

When the Assembly returns after the summer recess on September 1 this crisis could be even deeper.

"It's not a sham fight. This is the real thing," said a senior Stormont source. "In the past we've had umpteen issues that could be kicked down the road. This one is about money and the crunch has already come at the rate of £2m-plus a week."

In recent days we heard the latest warnings from First Minister Peter Robinson. And, not long ago, Gerry Adams wrote in his blog that the political structures of the Good Friday Agreement "hang by a thread".

And it is not just talk. "It is serious," a senior DUP source told this newspaper. "You are looking at the possibility - maybe probability - of an earlier Assembly election.

"The budget is probably enough to take the Executive through to the autumn, but after that it gets hairy. The question then for HMG is at what point do they intervene and how do they intervene?

"Is it recalling welfare (taking back powers)? Does that precipitate a Sinn Fein revolt?"

So, there are many questions, but not many answers. In the background there are also clearer descriptions of Sinn Fein's red lines: the Government taking back welfare powers is one; civil servants taking control of financial decisions another.

Politics is lost in a maze and no one seems to know the way out. You can't kick money down the road.

"They (Sinn Fein) are pushing it right to the limit," said one leading unionist. "There's no way out without somebody blinking and the Shinners are going to need something on welfare. The UK Government is saying: 'We can't give any more'."

This is the deadlock. I asked that unionist source at what point does the Government step in: "I don't think they will do anything until October. (Theresa) Villiers will look for the least-worst option, making it more difficult for them (Sinn Fein) to walk away."

Sinn Fein gave conditional support to the budget. But the ard chomhairle (or leadership) vote was not unanimous. There was both northern and southern opposition.

So, things could easily have been brought to a head after that meeting in Kildare a few weeks ago. This is how close things are; very close to Stormont's edge.

A couple of times during those Stormont House talks at the end of last year things also came close to falling apart, but an agreement was eventually reached across a range of issues. That entire agreement - not just its welfare elements - is now in jeopardy.

"There's more in play than welfare reform," a senior DUP source said. "The Stormont House Agreement is at stake."

He means all of that Agreement, including the elements for addressing the past.

So, that stand-off at Stormont has much wider implications.

"This is holding back the peace process," the DUP source added. "It's putting further progress at stake."

He means that, in the battles over welfare and budgets, everything else gets stuck including that framework for addressing the past; the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), the Independent Commission for Information-Retrieval and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.

There was a recent meeting on the Stormont House Agreement to talk specifically about a consultation document on that Historical Investigations Unit, but politics seems to be back in the territory of nothing being agreed until everything is agreed. And everything is far from agreed.

There have been many statements from Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, blaming Tory cuts for the difficulties facing the Executive's budget.

"It is hardly surprising the British Treasury is predicting that the Executive may exceed its budget, given the fact the Tories raided £1.5bn from our block grant," he said.

Sinn Fein has been pushing for a new negotiation and a new deal, but there seems little appetite for such talking.

"What is there to negotiate?" a Stormont source asked. "On finance, the December 23 (2014) deal is the best there is. There is no prospect that the Tories will give us more than their constituents are getting."

I also asked a DUP source about the possibility of another negotiation. "No, no," was his immediate response. "We are standing by the Stormont House Agreement. That's the road-map."

This is the thinking for now. All of it is being offered in a non-attributable way - and that in itself is an indication of how serious things are.

If it gets to the point of an earlier election, that does not make the issues which are the roadblocks disappear.

"It doesn't remove the problem at all," the DUP source added. "It maybe slightly reconfigures things at Stormont."

In the blog that he wrote recently, the Sinn Fein leader said his party's preference is for the current institutions to stay in place.

"But it cannot be at any price," he warned. "The British Tories need to be persuaded to agree a realistic funding for the Executive which delivers for citizens. Without a working budget this is not tenable."

Others dismiss the Adams commentary, with one source saying there is "no sign of realism about finance". And, so, the politics stay stuck.

"We have no sign that people are trying to get out of it," a senior Stormont source commented.

That is because, this time, the issues are different - they are about money or a lack of it.

This is not something that can be fixed, or fudged, in a cleverly worded paragraph. It is not about scripting something that can have different meanings.

This is how the process has managed to find ways through in the past. But not this time. This is much more serious and not in the frame of: "We've heard it all before."

There is not much time to October when decisions and interventions might be needed. And what happens if the institutions fall?

It is much easier to bring them down than it will be to put them back together again.

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