Belfast Telegraph

Another crisis looming on Hill after election

By Liam Clarke

Thinking about what happens to Stormont after the election got a little scarier after reading the Sinn Fein manifesto and the DUP response.

Clearly, there is no meeting of minds on welfare reform or economic policy: the DUP says it won't allocate any money for welfare from local funds; Sinn Fein says it will "negotiate" a further £1.5bn, presumably from Britain, but perhaps some, too, from cuts at Stormont.

The chances of that are, to say the least, low. Neither Labour nor the Tories would buy it. Even if a large party was so much over a barrel that it had to pay up for Northern Ireland votes to form a government, this is unlikely to happen. For one reason, Sinn Fein, which abstains, have no votes to sell and its leader, Gerry Adams, has ruled out any change.

If Sinn Fein isn't there, then their voice won't count for much in negotiations to form a government at Westminster.

Everyone predicts that the DUP will continue as the largest party here and it doesn't share Sinn Fein priorities for negotiation with Westminster.

The SDLP is closer to Sinn Fein on social and economic issues; indeed, they have led the way in some cases, but with three MPs they are less likely to be crucial.

The southern parties are also holding Sinn Fein up to scrutiny on this. The party is strongly anti-austerity in the Republic and is sensitive to suggestions that it behaves differently in government here. It has now painted itself into a corner.

The DUP want welfare reformed to make it more attractive to work and want to give Universal Credit, the main new benefit, a fair wind to see how it works. They want harsh edges, like the bedroom tax, knocked off, but it is not a red line for them.

Labour would scrap the bedroom tax and all the Executive parties support that, but in cold, hard terms the change would only save us £20m out of an annual block grant amounting to £10bn.

The Stormont House Agreement, which was supposed to save devolution, is now inoperable due to Sinn Fein's change of heart.

That means another crisis on the Hill after the election and, as usual, it is not clear where the money is coming from to solve it. The DUP has started hinting that it might be best to hand issues like welfare back to London.

That might stave off collapse temporarily, but it would send a terrible message. It would say that Sinn Fein is unable to take realistic economic decisions in response to changing circumstances. It would also mean that they and the DUP were collectively incapable of sustaining an administration.

Then all bets would be off.

Gerry Adams has ruled out any change

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