Analysis: Welfare impasse raises question over Stormont’s future


Peter Robinson appeared unusually relaxed as he delivered his broadside at Sinn Fein and warned of impending financial doom if welfare remains unreformed.

But exasperation lay just behind his words.

Believing that Sinn Fein is thwarting movement on many issues but that the DUP is getting at least equal blame for each impasse, he was clear that he wanted to make public what was going on.

Speaking candidly to the media — in a briefing on Wednesday evening —about his problems dealing with Sinn Fein and what he sees as its indifference to the consequences of welfare reform not progressing, Mr Robinson appeared to be appealing directly to the electorate over the heads of his partners in government.

In the mouth of May’s European and local government elections, each side’s positions are now being clearly influenced by electoral considerations.

Sinn Fein is presenting itself as the defender of the downtrodden, standing up to ruthless Tory cuts in the face of pressure to cave in.

The DUP casts itself as the responsible party of government which is prepared to take difficult decisions to protect the public finances.

It will also be aware that, despite the impression which sometimes one would glean from media coverage, welfare reform has been popular with voters, most of whom are taxpayers.

But while those two positions may in some ways suit the parties in the short term, Mr Robinson is looking beyond the next few weeks to what will happen in the longer term.

Sinn Fein cannot easily make its opposition to welfare reform a key plank of its election strategy and then allow welfare reform to happen weeks or even months after the election without risking ridicule on the streets of its heartlands such as west Belfast.

The DUP knows that and is clearly concerned that the party simply may never come to agree to the reform going through, a financially cataclysmic decision for the Stormont budget.

Already, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton is looking to re-draw the budget to pass on the Treasury’s financial penalties to departments including education and regional development.

But aside from the costs of setting up and funding Northern Ireland’s own welfare system, there is greater risk.

The principle of parity – that taxpayers in Northern Ireland pay the same taxes so should get the same benefits as those on the British mainland – was hard-won by the unionist Government in the post-war years.

If Northern Ireland was to lose that principle – at a point where we receive vastly more from London than we send there in tax – it would seem incomprehensible to Robinson and McGuinness’s Stormont predecessors.

The devolved executive is facing that unthinkable outcome because this impasse.

There are already whispers that if Stormont is incapable of taking such a decision, welfare should be returned to London.

And if that had to be done, there would be an obvious question: if London can take decisions but Stormont cannot, why have Stormont?