A third senior unionist has called for Westminster to re-take welfare powers from Stormont, as deadlock over welfare reform threatens the already fractious Executive.
TUV leader Jim Allister yesterday added his voice to those of Lord Trimble and Peter Robinson who each have warned against Stormont having control over the multi-billion pound welfare budget.
The three men, who on most issues are fiercely opposed to one another, have come to a similar conclusion as the budgetry crisis over the welfare impasse deepens.
Lord Trimble began the debate when he argued that it was nonsensical for Northern Ireland to retain parity with a universal UK-wide benefits system while Stormont has the power to implement benefits policies which are at variance with those elsewhere in the UK.
Welfare policy is not devolved to Scotland or Wales and last year the former Ulster Unionist leader called on the Government to legislate to remove the Assembly’s powers over welfare benefits.
Recalling how the principle of parity — that Northern Ireland’s benefits would be as generous as those in the rest of the UK even though we don’t raise as much in tax — was “hard won”, he said: “If one favours, as I do, a nationally unified tax and benefits system, it does not make sense for part of that system to be under Westminster and part to be devolved to Stormont.”
In April, Mr Robinson made similar comments: “If people are not capable of governing and taking those difficult decisions, then that power should not be devolved. It can be as simple as saying to the government: ‘This government is not competent to take difficult decisions because two of the parties in the five-party coalition are not prepared to take difficult decisions.
“Therefore, you have to take this off us. We no longer want to have devolved to us, these issues.”
In an unusual move for Mr Allister, his motion specifically names Mr Robinson approvingly. It states: “That this Assembly, noting the disastrous deadlock over welfare reform, endorses the earlier call by the First Minister for the repatriation of welfare powers to Westminster.”
Mr Allister said: “The crisis over welfare illustrates that Stormont is built on sand and mandatory coalition has failed. The obvious solution is for Westminster to take back welfare powers as co-first minister Robinson suggested back in April.”
He added that such a move would not solve Stormont’s inherent problems, which require an Opposition.
Yesterday Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams — whose party has been vetoing welfare reform, at a cost to the block grant of £5 million a month — wrote in the Guardian that the changes were “part of a Thatcherite agenda designed to dismantle the welfare state” and vowed: “Sinn Fein will oppose them.”