Villiers: “Northern Ireland’s political leaders need to act now to grip the situation”

In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum and the debate over welfare reform, the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers MP, writes exclusively for Slugger O’Toole about how we move forward

There is much to celebrate about modern Northern Ireland. Twenty years ago this small place carried the burden of a global reputation built on images of bitter conflict and violence. Today, Northern Ireland deserves admiration for its burgeoning creative industries sector, advanced infrastructure and outstanding cultural attractions, as well as for the progress delivered through the peace process. In recent years our home-grown golfing heroes and champion boxers have gained recognition across the world, while the G8 Summit, World Police and Fire Games and Giro d’Italia have shone a spotlight on Northern Ireland for all the right reasons.

The economic picture is also improving here. As the private sector has grown, unemployment has fallen; with the claimant count down for 20 consecutive months. And Northern Ireland continues to have outstanding success in attracting inward investment and jobs. This all adds up to a very positive story to tell about Northern Ireland.

However, as recent weeks have made increasingly plain, there are still substantial challenges with which the devolved administration needs to grapple; primarily around budgets, welfare reform, flags, parades and the past. It’s clear that relationships within the Executive will suffer until progress is made on these matters, and the failure to do so will continue to undermine public confidence in the devolved government.

So I have been urging Sinn Fein and the SDLP to accept welfare reform. A modern, dynamic economy requires a welfare system that rewards work and doesn’t trap people in poverty and dependency. The UK Government accepts that Northern Ireland’s specific circumstances justify some differences in the way welfare should be approached and we have agreed important flexibilities to reflect this, for example on the spare room subsidy. But we have gone as far as we can and there will be no additional money for Northern Ireland to retain a more costly welfare system. The financial consequences of failing to implement these reforms will be to the detriment of Northern Ireland’s front line public services. That impact will escalate to devastating levels in the future if this issue is not resolved before the DWP’s old computer systems are due for shut down and the Executive faces the prohibitive cost of taking over or replacing them.

Equally, I have called on unionists to return to the talks on flags, parades and the past. Time and again, these divisive issues have demonstrated their capacity to disrupt the Northern Ireland economy and poison the political atmosphere. It is vital that talks resume so progress can be made on these questions to enable Stormont to get on with the crucial business of rebalancing the economy and building a shared future.

I’ve been meeting the leaders of all the five parties in the Executive over the last few days to hear their appraisal of current difficulties. I believe that all of the parties are sincere about wanting to move forward and find a way through the gridlock. The proposal by Peter Robinson for cross party talks on institutional reform and welfare, along the same lines as the process that led to the St Andrews Agreement is a significant intervention. That process had an involvement from both the UK and Irish governments, something for which the nationalist parties (the SDLP in particular) have been calling for some time.

If the Northern Ireland parties agree to enter into new talks, then the UK Government will support and encourage that process and I believe that the Irish Government would too. But whatever role we might possibly play in future talks, intervention by the UK or the Irish governments will have little relevance or impact in the absence of sincere and serious negotiation between Northern Ireland’s political leaders, approached with a willingness to seek an accommodation and take difficult decisions. It is providing that local leadership which is pivotal to success. Anyone who thinks that as Secretary of State I can simply intervene and impose a solution does not understand the realities of the politics of Northern Ireland or its devolution settlement.

The UK Government has always said that we are open to institutional reform at Stormont – but we are clear that any changes must command widespread support and reflect the principles of power sharing and inclusivity at the heart of the Belfast Agreement.

I do not share the alarmist view that the Stormont institutions are in danger of imminent collapse. We only have to remind ourselves how much has already been achieved through the power sharing agreements to see that Northern Ireland has survived worse crises and darker days than these. But I do believe that Northern Ireland’s political leaders need to act now to grip the situation and find a way forward both on implementation of welfare reform and reaching an accommodation on flags, parading and the past. Unless they do, the Executive will find it increasingly difficult to deliver on issues such as jobs, education, health and transport and all the other everyday matters that are so hugely important to the people who elected them.

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  • How are you going to get broad agreement on creating an official opposition. Neither DUP nor SF have ever coped with opposition too kindly. By definition, opposition goes against consensus and will not in any form create an ‘agreed future’, but it is an essential aspect of a democratic government and should be available to any party which wishes to take up that mantle. The rest of this is blah blah.

  • Very diplomatic as one would expect, it must be a nightmare of a position to hold as an experienced Minister with the Government, nevermind one that is still learning her trade. Theresa Villiers has my sympathy having to dress up this shambles of a local group of Politicians (from whatever side of the street they come from) as something they are sincere about. Cynically inclined and self interested would be a better summing up of the state of play, until they move on from trying to score points off each other the country will continue to suffer. I remain unconvinced that they care about the electorate, if they don’t begin to understand that they are not special and not different from any other region in the UK the gears will continue to grind.

  • Tacapall

    “It must be a nightmare of a position to hold as an experienced Minister with the Government”

    Its certainly a nightmare for the Irish people having an unelected (In Ireland) overlord, a carpetbagger who wishes to use the Irish people as cannon fodder in their rise to political stardom. Being self interested is a vice those ancestors of slave traders like David Cameron and Douglas Hurd espouse, surely you’ve been keeping up to date on the whole protecting peadophiles in Westminster saga. Northern Irish politicians might be stubborn and some might even be primordial but self serving is something I dont think the majority could be accused of. This part of Ireland is special because to be truthful we never asked to join the Kingdom or the Union, in fact we’ve been trying for almost a thousand years in one way attempting to break free from the clutches of the Crown, so you see the way we look at it, us Irish, if you, English, want to keep a presence in Ireland then you’ll certainly pay through the nose for your squatters rights.

  • Thank you for those few kind words …..Case proven…..
    and never jump to conclusions … (said the man originally from Carrickfergus)

  • OneNI

    Poor auld Tapacall cant quite get his head around the idea that the Con /Lib Dems won 59% of the vote in 2010 and SF got 0.5%. Over 100,000 people in NI voted for Cameron and the Conservative manifesto.
    Time to recognise reality

  • Tacapall

    OneNI reality check – Did the electorate in this part of Ireland elect any Con/Lib Dem MPs to represent them in Westminster and are you sure those 100,000 people voted for Conservative policies rather than Ulster unionist policies.

  • OneNI

    The electorate of the UK elected the Con/ lib Dem Govt – Irish nationalism inc SF recognised the sovereignty of Westminster when they accepted the Belfast Agreement and became Ministers of the Crown at Stormount. This government has a national UK wide mandate – including here in NI – whether you like it or recognise it is immaterial.
    How insulting of you to suggest that these 100,000 voters didn’t know what they were voting for!

  • Michael Henry

    ” Theresa Villiers not a MP here writes exclusively for Slugger “-

    And no one at Slugger asked her why Locals should listen to a Politician who can’t get one Vote here-

    Stop fining us daughter and comment on your own home issues where you are elected- you have no mandate or womandate in this part of the world- sling your hook-

  • OneNI

    Keep up Michael – UK wide mandate and got over 100,000 votes in NI. Villiers in office far less odd that decreeing that a party that gets 0.5% of the UK wide vote (and only less than 30% of the vote in NI) is Guaranteed to be in Govt!!.
    BTW you do realise telling Villiers to comment on her ‘own home issues’ is verging on racism?
    Remember. There are no ‘fines’ the UK (democratically elected) govt has decided that as part of its efforts to reduce the deficit the Growth of the welfare budget is to be curtailed (Incidentally the ‘rich’ are being hit proportionately harder by this Govt than they were by Labour but I digress). Our NI budget is being proportionately reduced.
    We (Stormount) have decide to maintain the old more expensive welfare system (despite the evidence that it does work and despite the fact that NI people support welfare reform as much as they do in GB – Assembly polling showed majority support for reform here as in GB).
    We have to find the money to do that or cut elsewhere. Its called G O V E R N M E N T. To date all we have had is pretend govt.

  • Michael Henry

    Sinn Fein are a All Ireland political party which your figures seem to forget- the Tory’s are not. A All UK Political party as next years Westminster elections will prove to you yet again – you come with figures- I come with facts-

  • Ernekid

    Villiers is one of the crappest Secretary of states that Northern Ireland has had in years. Definitely as bad as Mandelson during his exile years. I’ve listened to her speak at 3 different occasions and has said the same thing as she has here. Nothing. There’s no weight or substance behind here. There’s no indication she has any understanding of here brief and she always looks desperate to get back on the plane to London.

    Villiers is obviously still in the cabinet due to her gender. When Cameron half arsedly tried to make cabinet more representative in the last reshuffle. Villiers kept her job so it wouldn’t look like he was sacking a women regardless of her competence. Villiers didn’t make an impact during her tenure in transport and she’s been totally incompetent in NI for dozens of reasons. She deserves to kicked back to the backbenches where she belongs.

  • Washington Irvine

    Reggie Maudling she is not. Unfortunately

  • Mister_Joe

    Teetotal?

  • Jagmaster

    UK wide mandate OneNI? Is that the same mandate that the Tories couldn’t
    get elected with a majority thus needing the help of the Liberal
    Democrats?

    And can you imagine the reaction if Martin McGuinness pitched up in Chipping Norton and gave the locals a dressing down.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “How insulting of you to suggest that these 100,000 voters didn’t know what they were voting for!”

    What Tacapall is saying is that they were voting (as their fathers always had) Unionist, rather than for what they are getting, control by a “Con/Lib Dem” administration.

    And how naive of you if you even begin to believe that they tortured themselves evaluating each policy, struggled through the press evaluations of these policies, rushed to the McClay Library to check academic points and finally concluded that their electoral interest lay in making the exact choice they did. They voted for “yer man” from the usual party as usual. This is Northern Ireland after all! Its what we do.

  • OneNI

    Mmm like nationalist voters too. Perhaps partly explains why SDLP voters vote SDLP even though a majority of them don’t want a UI any time soon despite it being the party’s central policy?
    There were no UUP candidates but plenty of varieties of Ni unionist but they voted Conservative and Unionist

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Pardon my naivety, I know that nationalists are opposed to majority rule (for very good historical reasons) but given how close things are now and how much closer they probably will be in the future is it not worth reconsidering?

    It will fall on Alliance a lot to be the ‘kingmaker’ of policy but they’ve shown that they can handle the heat, especially given the barbaric treatment of their members and premises of the BCC flag affair. (Standby for a rant from DC….)

    They’re not fond of fleggery and irresponsible parading. They’re not fond of MOPEry either.

    I was never their greatest fan but they’re among the small number of NI politicians that I would trust.

    So, for example if we do hit a state where APNI are the kingmakers in terms of swing vote (must be soon surely?) then why not give it a go?

    If SF, SDLP, APNI and Greens say “harsher restrictions on parades and flegs” then so be it .
    It is written.
    It is done.
    Finally (though implementing it would be fun, more road blocks, more Willie Frazer, more Jamie Bryson, more not-surrendering….).

    If APNI, UUP, TUV, DUP say “implement the welfare reforms” then so be it.

    Again, this is written in the full awareness of my naivety of how things ‘work’ (I use the word loosely) in Stormont but it might be a way of getting things done. (No, I didn’t bother to check my figures, some one here will do that for me).

  • Mister_Joe

    Backwards to the future? Will never happen. Neither that nor a united Ireland anytime this generation.

  • Jag

    Westminster treats Northern Ireland as a sex-trafficking
    pimp treats his victim.

    “We give you this GBP 10bn subvention so you must carry out
    all sorts of acts of unpleasantness, or we’ll make up capricious rules to keep
    you in your place – we’ll fine you GBP 100m a year unless you implement welfare
    cuts (reform), and you’ll need a new IT system to deal with a newly non-standard
    welfare system (cost? Let’s pull that number out of our arses – GBP 1bn).”

    And when the victim asks for a full accounting of how much
    it gives and how much it receives, they meet a wall of obfuscation.

    Northern Ireland isn’t some 14-year old Albanian
    unfortunate, and the geniuses at Westminster are not all-powerful slavemasters
    whose pimp-hand we must fear.

    Northern Ireland doesn’t truly have a 25% economic deficit,
    let’s get the real numbers and get this jurisdiction to stand on its own two
    feet without our Westminster pimp, whom no-one here has voted for, making up
    the rules as it goes along. Otherwise, a lifetime of dependency and misery
    beckons.

  • Mike the First

    What has being an “all-Ireland party” got to do with your first comment?
    And that’s the second time you’ve been corrected in two days when claiming the Sec of State’s party didn’t get one vote here.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Righto Mr J
    Was just thinking out loud so to speak.

  • Zeno1

    So your version of this is they give us £10 billion a year and if we don’t introduce Welfare reform which the rest of the UK have, they will only give us £9billion £900 million a year?
    The Bastards!!

  • Morpheus

    Let’s talk it through AG…

    Day 0: Northern Ireland now has an opposition.

    1. DUP/UUP/TUV/UKIP/Independents form a unionist coalition and being the biggest group forms the ‘Government’ presumably taking control of all departments. (imagine a ‘earth is 6000 years old’ advocate in charge of education, shudder)

    2. SF/SDLP/Alliance/Greens/NI21 become opposition by default.

    3. The petition of concern which is supposed to encourage cross-community cooperation no longer exists so the ‘Government’ basically does whatever it wants.

    4. ‘Government’ takes whatever steps they feel necessary to ensure they back into power again – the nature of the beast

    5. ‘Government’ can behave/perform as badly as they want because they know that in NI there is a built-in mechanism to vote along tribalistic lines for fear of what will happen if ‘themmuns’ get into ‘Government’.

    Result: the coalition get voted back in over and over and over again no matter how badly they perform.

    Does that sound like progress? Something you would sign up to? Something that would be in NI’s best interests?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Morph

    Nuts.

    I didn’t realise they still had such a majority.

    In that case disregard the whole point till there’s a bit more balance as you’re absolutely right; they’ll behave as badly as they can.

    (I really thought it was near tipping point. I must pay more attention on these threads…)

  • Jag

    We give them the VAT and excise on transactions, income tax and national insurance, corporation tax and a host of other payments, which they don’t acknowledge when the GBP 10bn subvention is wheeled out.

    Mind you, the sex-trafficking pimp is also upfront about the subvention, the cost of getting the unfortunate victim into the West etc etc; like our unelected friends in Westminster, they tend to be less forthcoming about the value of the unpleasant services we perform.

    Basterds indeed!

  • Morpheus

    108 MLAs: 43 ‘Nationalist’, 9 ‘Other’ and 56 ‘Unionist.

    (Basil is an anomaly at the minute though – he will be ‘Other’ after the next election if he is re-elected)

    There is not a snowball’s chance in hell we would even be talking about scrapping power sharing if the figures didn’t stack in favour of political unionism.

    If we had an electorate which didn’t vote along tribal lines then fair enough but this to me is nothing but a last gasp attempt to get back to the ‘good old days’ when themuns knew their place in NI society.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Cheers Morph.

    In that case I vote for David Crookes’ suggestion that we install some sort of Tito-like dictator.

    Maybe have some sort of X-factor like auditions?

  • delphindelphin

    http://www.dfpni.gov.uk/ni-net-fiscal-balance-report-2011-12.pdf

    Jag, the N. Ireland tax returns is set out in the above link,including figures for income tax, vat etc payed by the good people of the occupied six counties. The figures are
    estimates, and in something as complicated as this, assumptions have to be made; but hey – never let facts get in the way of a good story.

  • Morpheus

    AG my man, I would hand the whole show over to a bunch of reclusive Inuits if I thought they would make life better for us all

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear! If only you could hear what my Conservative friends in England actually say about their loyal “adherents” in the wee six (“too expensive a hobby”, for a start). But I’d covered this, I think, in my “Stockholm syndrome” postings elsewhere on Slugger.

    And “yer man” can be from any party, Greens even! Al you need to do is vote by standing order. I’d like to think that perhaps I’m no party’s dog (see “dog at Kew” posting).

  • SeaanUiNeill

    AG, David Crookes? “Tito”? Last postings I read he was suggesting an Irish Royalist party, nothing so unChristian as Tito!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    How about a Stuart restoration, Morph? There’s Francis II sitting over in Europe just awaiting the call to sweep the whole encrusted corruption of three hundred years away!

    But yes, the reclusive Inuits might do at a pinch, anything, anything would be better than the Sparta style joint monarchy of OFMdFM rule by decree.

    And talking about “themuns”, I know someone who remembers when “themuns” had to get into the road Gandhi style, if “Themotheruns” (with a capitol T) felt they should not be on the same pavement. Majority rule?

  • Morpheus

    Asda are one of the biggest companies in Northern Ireland, employing nigh on 5000 people. The Asda Group are based in Leeds and like every other company in the UK send their tax cheques to London.

    At what stage are the taxes on all goods and services sold in NI added to the NI figures? Are the NI figures included in the report above?

    Maybe they are, I don’t know, I was wondering if you did

  • delphindelphin

    Don’t know, Maybe if you dig deep enough into the report you will find out, maybe not, but as a guess the income tax, vat and more, generated by that business will be in the NI account, corporation tax may be credited to GB. I think you have to take these figures as the best available estimate. Certainly income tax and vat are counted in.

  • barnshee

    “We give them the VAT and excise on transactions, income tax and national insurance, corporation tax and a host of other payments, which they don’t acknowledge when the GBP 10bn subvention is wheeled out”

    The population of NI is some 2.9% of the UK pop.
    If you are confident NI is paying 2.9% of all government taxes (Income tax Vat Excise Stamp duty NI contribs etc etc)- I suggest you invite the treasury to establish the tax paid by NI and then run NI on it. (The treasury will be delighted)

    HINT
    Given the economic situation in NI(wage levels anyone) and the relatively low property prices I suggest that NI will not shape up to a 2.9 % contribution to the overall tax take. A glance at Slugger archieves will show that this subject was explored in some detail

  • barnshee

    “At what stage are the taxes on all goods and services sold in NI added to the NI figures? Are the NI figures included in the report above?”

    They are not specifically identified
    Asda Tesco and CO return all their activities to HMRC on a nationwide basis

    This is where the estimates come in–.often based on population levels.

    NI has 2.9 % of the UK population –in the absence of specific data– then for example ASDA sales, tax paid etc in NI are estimated at 2.9% of the total.

    It was may experience (admittedly a long time ago) that for a variety of reasons estimates based on population levels overstated NI contributions

  • Zeno1

    So your version is they don’t give us £10 billion a year?

  • Morpheus

    I have been through that report several times and there are quite a few questions I would like answers to…

    (why has NI’s income from Income tax decreased when the rest of the UK saw no change, why has NI’s income from Inheritance tax decreased by 26% when the rest of the UK’s increased by 7%, why is NI’s per capita expenditure on ‘EU transactions’ more than double the UK, who do NI spend less on science and technology per capita than the UK etc)

    …but there’s nothing to suggest that the taxes generated on goods/services sold in NI are or aren’t included in the NI figures. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.

  • Morpheus

    Do you think the whole “make way themun” pavement thing really happened Seaan?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yep! Saw similar enough stuff back in the 1950s as a kid in rural Ulster and heard enough “decent middle class” professional people seriously say “they should” well into the 1970s. Privately that is.

    And they do not come sounder than my informant.

    So roll on Inuit rule, I say!

  • Morpheus

    NI population: 1.811m
    UK population: 64.1m
    % = 2.8%

    NI taxes generated: £14,137m
    UK taxes generated: £559,959m
    % = 2.5%

    As you say, punching below our weight

    http://www.dfpni.gov.uk/ni-net-fiscal-balance-report-2011-12.pdf

  • WindsorRocker

    I don’t think anyone thinks that simple majority unionist rule would work but we need some way to create a coherent joined up decision making structure where a group of parties form even a weighted majority government (even requiring a certain composition of designations) to deal with the day to day issues such as fiscal governance etc.

    Running in parallel with that the Petition of Concern triggering cross community votes would work for decisions that were deemed to be ethnic or have a specific sectarian impact. Maybe even establishing that ethnic/sectarian criteria in law allowing the validity of a petition of concern to be established in court before being triggered. So if the government of the day wanted to get a peace of parades legislation through the Assembly the need would be there to get cross community consent but that same government would be able to take decisive and joined up action on the likes of welfare reform or any other “normal governmental matter” as opposed to the current drift we have with short term salami slicing of budgets to cope with fines on an ad hoc basis as heads are stuck in the sand.

    The government dealing with day to day issues would be formed with a common purpose and would want to be there. Parties in government would be rewarded for making things work as opposed to being rewarded for blocking things under the current system. Parties who wish to remain in government would be talking things up not talking them down and would be under pressure to do deals. It might encourage,on the key economic and social questions of the day for differing parties to nuance their approaches, allowing them to effectively develop two distinct streams of policy, one on the bread and butter issues and one on the ethnic/sectarian/identity stuff. IT may encourage in the long term a realignment of politics if only even within the two communal blocks. And if differences so great arose between the coalition then elections would have to be called with the inevitable risk that an electorate would be certain to take issue with whoever they blamed for throwing the head up, prompting a focusing of minds. Frequent elections are a hallmark of unstable coalition governments so why shouldn’t this one be any different if things aren’t working?

    I think back to the 2010 general election when the UUP link up with the Conservatives forced the issue of deficit reduction onto the political agenda as the UUP had to sign up to the Tory manifesto. It was a distinguishing factor between the two main unionist parties and I remember the merits and demerits of the Tory cuts being discussed on TV debates.

    The current system got things back up and running but it’s a basket case for actually running a country and balancing a budget and making decisions that require a clear philosophical approach to provide a framework for those political decisions.

    For those who suggest that the political party structure is not conducive to that, one only has to look south to where two parties born out of the Irish Civil War have been able to present different platforms and form coalitions with varying smaller niche groups over the life of that state.
    That differentiation of approach, of responsibility for decisions would be bound to increase turnout as elections might actually mean more than “let’s stop themmuns”.

  • barnshee

    “in fact we’ve been trying for almost a thousand years in one way attempting to break free from the clutches of the Crown,”

    As I never cease pointing out the “irish” invited in the Normans not once but twice. – NOTE no “English”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diarmait_Mac_Murchada

    Unable to organise on a national basis the “Irish” spent years supporting threats to the English Succession. (The Stuarts, Philip of Spain, France -twice -Germany) on each occasion they were soundly booted up the arse for their trouble– unable as they were to connect cause and effect

    Adopting a fundamental Roman catholic ethos for their attempt at a state they via murder and discrimination drove some 15% of their population out of existence-confirming to the Ulster prod the rational for their refusal to take part in the “Irish state”

    .http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/historical-detective-trail-reveals-ethnic-cleansing-by-ira-in-cork-26697528.html

    Exporting their problems of surplus population and unemployment to England they were rescued (after a fashion) by piggy backing on UK accession to the EC and the ability of some of their population to speak a form of English -associated with a “beggar my neighbour” attitude on taxation.

    Having continually put their hand in the fire the “Irish” have been surprised to be burned – treated no worse than anyone else the “English” dealt with.

    The Irish persist in a martyr complex whereby they are innocent lads and lass standing around innocently then being brutalised by the Brits- rather than authors of their own misfortune.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’m pretty sure it was him Seaan, if not him then some one of a similarly high calibre of writing.