Sinn Fein walk-out ‘has put welfare concessions at risk’

Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, said that direct rule could effectively nullify the mitigation measures in place to protect benefits claimants
Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, said that direct rule could effectively nullify the mitigation measures in place to protect benefits claimants

Sinn Fein’s walk-out from the Executive means it has jeopardised the very welfare concessions which it previously insisted upon, according to a unionist MP.

Jeffrey Donaldson was speaking as the Unite trade union said on Wednesday that it is fearful of the impact which direct rule would have upon the Province’s welfare system.

The union claimed benefit mitigation measures already agreed, and which Sinn Fein had previously demanded, are failing.

It has planned protests today at job offices on Belfast’s Falls Road, Newry, Strabane, Enniskillen, Portadown, east Belfast and more.

Under the Fresh Start agreement, struck between the DUP and Sinn Fein in 2015, the republican party agreed to stop blocking Tory-led changes to benefit in Northern Ireland after some concessions were reached.

These concessions meant the reform of the welfare system in the Province would be softer than that carried out elsewhere in the UK; it included over £585m being set aside to help those who stood to lose out from the changes, which have seen things like Personal Independent Payments replace older types of benefits.

The Unite union said on Wednesday that “the mitigations are proving ineffective in safeguarding those in greatest need”, and community coordinator Albert Hewitt told the News Letter there is “fear” direct rule will spell a tougher benefits regime.

Ever since Sinn Fein’s decision to quit the Executive in January, the chances of the Conservative government in London taking outright control of the Province have looked increasingly likely.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said that “if we revert to direct rule, and if Sinn Fein refuse to form an Executive, clearly we have no control over what direct rule minister might do”.

He said that the government may not be minded to keep Northern Ireland’s welfare mitigation measures in place, adding: “I hope those who are out protesting on the streets will be sending a very clear message to Sinn Fein that they expect them to get back into government and protect the most vulnerable in society.

“It saddens us that Sinn Fein are prepared to put welfare reform measures and the most vulnerable at risk simply to pursue their own agenda.”

Sinn Fein said the introduction of direct rule would be “bad faith”. It added: “We will continue to oppose Tory austerity policies and to support those most in need in our communities.”