Left-wing unionist Cobain tells Sinn Fein to get real on welfare reform

DUP councillor Fred Cobain
DUP councillor Fred Cobain

A veteran left-wing unionist, who shares Sinn Fein’s opposition to welfare reform, has said that it is time for the party to face reality and realise that its veto of the changes will harm Northern Ireland.

Fred Cobain, who was a member of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party before spending decades in the UUP, said that he, like Sinn Fein, believed that the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms would be harmful.

But the former MLA, who is now a DUP councillor in Carrickfergus, said that Sinn Fein’s refusal to go to Westminster and argue against the changes when they were being debated in Parliament meant that it had no right to now jeopardise the budgets of every Stormont department.

“People have to realise that the Coalition Government was democratically elected and their main policy is welfare reform,” he told the News Letter.

“It has gone through the Commons and what really galls me is that Sinn Fein had the chance to impact that debate and didn’t even turn up.

“Sinn Fein had an opportunity to go to the Commons and represent those most directly affected by this but they didn’t take that opportunity – they left people disenfranchised.”

Mr Cobain said he believed that the reforms pursued by Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith will see “those who can least afford it impacted most ... but that’s what the democratically-elected Government are deciding to do and we have to administer it”.

Mr Cobain reiterated that, in reality, Stormont only “administers” social security policy because although it is nominally devolved to Stormont, the cost of creating a separate system for the Province means that “it’s not devolved here in real terms”.

He said: “We couldn’t afford to take over the social security system. You can choose not to implement welfare reform and make up the deficit by cutting in housing, education, health, etc, but if the parties have decided not to implement this bill they will have to find the money from those budgets. The financial burden will bear down on everyone who lives here.

“I don’t really think that is an option so this is really Sinn Fein grandstanding.”

Republicans have accused those urging it to allow welfare reform of caving in to the wishes of the Tory-led Government and argued that they should make the case for a better deal.

But Mr Cobain said:“It’s not about getting the best deal. We’ve already got the best deal and are a lot better off than across the water.

“If people think that somehow the rest of the United Kingdom with the exception of Northern Ireland are going to face the trials and tribulations of this and somehow we’re going to be exempt, they’re in cloud cuckoo land.”

He said that even if Stormont was to attempt to raise the money by introducing water charges and hiking the regional rate it would be insufficient.

Last week First Minister Peter Robinson said that the estimated cost of a welfare computer system is £1.8 billion.