Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's politicians are making a dangerous mistake by digging their heels on welfare reform

By Liam Clarke

The message could not be clearer. Theresa Villiers is telling us that the well has run dry. Westminster intends giving us no help with meeting the bill on welfare reform. We are on our own.

She points out that a number of adjustments to the proposed benefits changes here have already been negotiated with Nelson McCausland, the Social Development Minister, and stresses that Westminster has gone as far as it will go.

"The UK Government isn't prepared to go further than that," she told the Belfast Telegraph. "There is no more money on the table. This is a matter for the Northern Ireland parties. If they want to break parity then they are free to do that but if they pay for a more expensive welfare system it will leave them with less money for other priorities."

That may not be what we want to hear – or indeed what some of the political parties believe is fair – but at least it is unmistakeable: nobody is going to bail us out.

The most immediate priority for the Executive, like any Government anywhere, is now to get its budget in order. Failing to do so will have more serious and immediate effects on ordinary people than failing to resolve flags, parading and the past.

After tackling the budget, these legacy issues are the most serious problems facing us. If it is nationalists who need to move on welfare reform, it is predominantly unionists who need to show pragmatism on all-party talks.

Ms Villiers hopes to take the toxic issue of parading past the Ardoyne shops out of the overall mix by invoking a new process which would involve mediation, sampling opinion and making recommendations.

That is what the Parades Commission recommended and it is also what unionists have already accepted after we editorialised on it in the Belfast Telegraph.

If that is established, unionists should move into more general discussion on flags, parading and the past. They pulled out a few months ago over the issue of the on-the-runs letters and there is nothing to be gained by finding some new precondition for failing to engage.

It is easy for both nationalists and unionists to find excuses for digging their heels in on their chosen issues. It is also a mistake, and very obviously endangers the political stability on which our economic recovery depends.

Yesterday Nancy Soderberg, President Clinton's former adviser on Northern Ireland, gave us an idea of how the current blocking tactics look to foreign politicians who take notice of us.

She spoke of an "abysmal abdication of leadership" by nationalist and unionist politicians "far too stuck in the past, making progress vulnerable, and even reversible".

Let us hope they can start to prove her wrong.

Belfast Telegraph


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