Sinn Fein is widely perceived as a disciplined party working strictly to a long-term strategy. The party’s astonishing flip-flops on welfare reform suggest that that view is not always accurate.
Although Sinn Fein had been critical of the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms from the point where they began to take shape around 2010, it was not until 2012 that Sinn Fein moved to delay the proposals.
The following year, that hardened to a commitment to “oppose this [welfare reform] bill”. That year – according to Peter Robinson who spoke out months later – the DUP leader believed that he had a deal with Martin McGuinness to agree welfare reform alongside a mitigation package funded from the block grant.
Mr Robinson claimed (and Mr McGuinness denied) that the Deputy First Minister was happy with the deal but couldn’t get his party’s leadership to support it, leading to over a year of drift.
The party pledged unbending opposition to the reforms and launched a “stop Tory cuts” campaign right up until December’s Stormont House Agreement, which agreed to welfare reform with a mitigation package which would not have covered all the cuts to benefits.
The DUP deliberately did not goad Sinn Fein about its U-turn, and stayed quiet in an attempt to get the deal over the line. But as journalists and others probed the figures, it became clear that the £94 million a year mitigation package was far short of the amount which Sinn Fein itself claimed would be cut. The party had claimed that the reforms would cost just two of the Province’s 18 constituency areas – Upper Bann and Londonderry – £122 million a year, yet the mitigation fund was just £94 million.
Under pressure to explain the discrepancy, Sinn Fein claimed that it had been duped by the DUP and did a fresh U-turn to again veto the bill.
As recently as September, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy was reiterating that the party would not accept any benefit claimant losing money.
That pledge has now been openly abandoned — but Sinn Fein is blaming the Tories for its latest welfare change of stance.
The party claims that George Osborne’s cuts to tax credits announced at the start of the summer meant that it could not keep its promise.
And, under the DUP-Sinn Fein deal announced on Tuesday there is the considerable sum of £60 million a year for four years to offset some of those tax credits cuts.
But that has come at a price – money to alleviate the original welfare reforms, which Sinn Fein said would take hundreds of millions of pounds a year, has fallen.
The average of £94 million over six years – which in March Sinn Fein rejected as inadequate to protect the vulnerable – has fallen to £86 million a year over four years.