Sam McBride: What once threatened to topple Stormont might now help rebuild it

Welfare reform is a looming ' and acute ' problem for Sinn F�in
Welfare reform is a looming ' and acute ' problem for Sinn F�in
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Almost a year ago, Peter Robinson made a counter-intuitive, but quite logical, observation about the Stormont standoff.

Speaking four months after a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin fell apart because Arlene Foster could not persuade her party to back it, her predecessor said that in his experience sometimes “when a problem cannot be solved, it needs to be enlarged”.

The former first minister went on to explain that broadening the agenda could “open up more scope for trade-offs and hopefully the inclusion of other issues upon which common ground might be found”.

In an interview with the News Letter a fortnight later, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald was noncommittal about the proposal, describing it as “an interesting approach”.

Since then there have not even been talks in which other issues could be put on the table – until this week. In public, the DUP and Sinn Féin have given scant hints that they are expanding the agenda beyond the hoary issues which separate them – the Irish language, gay marriage and a moving list of other issues, depending on which Sinn Féin representative is speaking.

Given those two parties’ instinctive secrecy, it is unsurprising that they have not gone public with further issues. But last week’s election has made clear that there is one issue which is not orange or green that might help them get Stormont back: Welfare reform. If that proves to be the case, it would be deeply ironic that the problem which once threatened to topple Stormont contributes to its rebuilding.

In 2014, Sinn Féin brought the Assembly to the brink of collapse by steadfastly refusing to implement welfare reforms. Sinn Féin urged the other parties to join it in a campaign to “stop Tory cuts”, something that the DUP, UUP, Alliance and others said was irresponsible and could lead to a return to direct rule. In that case, they argued, the changes would go through anyway.

After a protracted standoff, Sinn Féin did a U-turn in 2015, deciding that saving Stormont was more important than stopping welfare cuts, because it could use devolution to mitigate the changes which many welfare recipients would face.

But while Sinn Fein was able to point to the fact that it had won some concessions from the government, particularly by exempting future housing benefit claimants from the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, it did not extract from the government a single additional penny for welfare reform.

Instead, it secured the agreement of the DUP to use up to £560 million from Stormont’s existing budget to top up the benefits of those who would lose money under the reforms – but only for a limited period.

That period runs out in 10 months’ time. From then, unless Stormont returns, welfare claimants are unlikely to receive any additional funds to make up for what they lost when Sinn Féin allowed the changes to go through.

At the Belfast election council last weekend, People Before Profit’s West Belfast MLA, Gerry Carroll, said that “on the doors, everybody was talking about welfare reform” during what was a disappointing council election campaign for Sinn Féin. The young socialist politician said that “furious” voters had punished the big parties for allow the changes to happen: “Our message was ‘the second of May is payback day for welfare reform’.

As the party which is both ideologically and organisationally Sinn Féin’s main rival in its West Belfast heartland, it might have been expected that PBP’s claims about the anger over welfare reform would have been dismissed by Sinn Féin. However, it has acknowledged, albeit in less explicit terms, that welfare was an issue it encountered when canvassing.

Two months ago, Stormont’s Department for Communities published a review of the mitigation schemes.

It said that if the funding ends on March 31, 2020, that “is likely to present significant issues to people who may have benefited from this financial support”.

The largest of the mitigation schemes, the Social Sector Size Criteria (the ‘bedroom tax’) mitigation, alone affects 34,000 claimants.

In January, the Audit Office reported that the financial bill for Stormont in the first two years of the mitigation was £136 million less than expected, partly because of lower than anticipated uptake and partly because of delays in rolling out welfare reforms.

There is a separate conservative argument that welfare reform is necessary to encourage people back into work. But virtually no one in Stormont ever made that case in the first place and it is more difficult to argue now that there have been a multiplicity of gaffes exposed in the rollout of the changes in GB, even drawing criticism from the reforms’ architect, Iain Duncan Smith.

Sinn Féin risks having its own rhetoric thrown back at it next year if claimants see big cuts. The party made clear in 2016 that collapsing Stormont would inevitably mean welfare cuts. That logically means that when it collapsed Storont and refused to return, Sinn Féin was fully aware of the consequences for those it describes as “the most vulnerable”.

Just over a year before leading Sinn Féin out of Stormont, Gerry Adams warned that if the institutions collapsed it would mean “British direct rule” and would involve “the full weight of a Tory assault on the welfare state”.

The Sinn Fein president asked: “We should ask those in favour of the institutions collapse do they really want to let the Tories impose water charges, increase student fees, impose prescription charges, end free travel for pensioners and slash public services in the North? That would be a likely consequence if the talks had failed, or if the institutions had been suspended.”

He pledged: “Sinn Féin will not hand over the political institutions and hard-won agreements to the Tories.”

In the talks which began this week, the central argument still seems to be over sequencing. Arlene Foster has since August 2017 agreed to the principle of an Irish language ac, but wants to see Stormont restored immediately to allow the wider work of government to resume alongside a time-bound process to legislate for the language – a plan supported by the Irish government.

Had Sinn Féin agreed to the DUP’s proposal then, an Irish language act would either have been on the statute book months ago or Mrs Foster would have been toppled – either of which would at least have brought some clarity.

Having rejected it then, it is difficult for Sinn Féin to do a sudden U-turn now. But in welfare reform there is an issue of concern to a swathe of its support base which potentially could be solved by another cheque from London.

While there will be those in Whitehall and also in Stormont who would be alarmed at any financial incentivisation for Sinn Féin having toppled Stormont, at this point that is unlikely to override the government’s desperation to get Stormont restored.

But even if a deal can be done between the DUP and Sinn Féin over coming months, it will only be durable if it can be sold to both unionism and nationalism – and if any new Stormont is demonstrably less secretive and incompetent than the system which went before.