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Direct rule is a backwards step for Northern Ireland


Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley

It is hard to disagree with Ian Paisley jnr's prediction that the Assembly could collapse later this year and Northern Ireland could return to a five-year period of direct rule. His analysis is based on the belief that Sinn Fein has backed itself into a corner over opposition to welfare reform from which it cannot extricate itself.

Certainly, hope seems in short supply. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have both in recent times spoken of the threat to the power-sharing institutions and the need for the parties here to sign off the Stormont House Agreement.

Cynics will point out that political crises are two a penny in Northern Ireland and we have looked into the abyss so many times that it has become almost the default position in political negotiations.

Sinn Fein in particular is adept at this game of brinkmanship - over ceaserfires, over decommissioning, over support for policing - betting, quite rightly, that someone will pull something out of the hat at the last minute and save the day.

But this crisis feels different. Sinn Fein is playing its anti-austerity card to audiences on both sides of the border, making it difficult for the party to change tack in Northern Ireland.

However, David Cameron is not going to ride to its rescue this time by funding a more generous welfare system in Northern Ireland compared to other regions of the UK. Sinn Fein's welfare proposals do not stack up financially.

Perhaps most worrying of all is Mr Paisley's assertion that unionists find the power-sharing administration toxic. The inference is that unionists are so fed up with the rows and lack of decision-making at Stormont that they don't really care if it falls and is replaced by direct rule.

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The consequences for people here will be enormous. We will feel the full weight of George Osborne's welfare reforms; the ability to vary corporation tax rates will be lost, thus removing an important economic inducement to inward investors, and we could end up paying water charges.

Our politicians will have no one to blame but themselves if the institutions collapse. Having shown enormous courage to enter into partnership in the first place, they will have squandered a glorious opportunity to create a new Northern Ireland of shared values and establish a lasting peace.

Surely that is too big a prize to let slip?

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