As Mick mentioned, the repeated attempts to blame the fallout from the Northern Ireland Executive’s deadlock on Welfare Reform on “the right wing Tory/DUP austerity agenda“, or “the British Tory Government“, or, more frequently, “a cabinet of Tory millionaires“, have been dealt a blow by clarification of the Labour Party’s position by the Shadow NI Secretary of State at the party’s conference.
The disagreement, said [Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis], is “a denial” of the agreements devolving powers to Stormont that UK Westminster-passed welfare reform would be enforced in NI, or else there would be financial penalties.
“Making no progress on welfare has financial implications. It is not a cost-free choice: the impact on health, ducation and other frontline services is going to become extremely challenging,” he said.
His remarks, made alongside SDLP leader Alisdair McDonnell and Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey at a breakfast held by the NI peace and reconciliation group, CHAMP, provoked the irritation of both of them.
“Good leadership is mobilising your own supporters and your own base and delivering on bread-and-butter issues,” said Mr Lewis, “Great leadership is about being willing to walk in the shoes of your former foes.
“It is also sometimes being willing to say really tough things to your own supporters. That’s great leadership. What NI desperately needs at the moment is great leadership.”
The Labour Party leader, and would-be Prime Minister, Ed Miliband sought to differentiate his approach from the current UK Government.
Speaking in a BBC Northern Ireland interview at the Labour conference in Manchester, Mr Miliband said: “The government in Northern Ireland has to continue its work getting on with the process of welfare reform, but obviously we’ll be making some changes if we win the election in May 2015.”
He also said his party would “continue to reform welfare, but we would listen to the people of Northern Ireland as we do it, as it’s not happening under this government.”
Whether the “some changes” would result in a different package than that previously negotiated by OFMDFM, then rejected by Sinn Féin, leading to the ousting of Leo Green, isn’t entirely clear. [That was resolved amicably! – Ed] And confidentially…
As Liam Clarke asks in the Belfast Telegraph, so what’s the Sinn Féin exit strategy?
Michelle Gildernew and Paul Maskey, two of its MPs, put the situation plainly this week in speeches on the fringes of the UK Labour Party conference in Manchester.
“Tory cuts have not been implemented in the north due to our party stalling the passage of the Bill,” Mr Maskey said.
Both MPs pledged they would hold the line despite clear statements from Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Secretary of State, that Labour would not change the substance of welfare reform if it takes power. It will abolish the bedroom tax, though we have got an exemption from that anyway, and it will review Universal Credit but keep within spending limits. It also intends to cut Child Benefit by £1 a week. [added emphasis]
Since our benefit spending is allocated on the basis of what is spent in England, and since we don’t raise enough taxes to pay our own way, there is no real way out of this, even with a change of government or the devolution of fiscal powers. Yet imposing cuts goes against the grain for Sinn Fein.
The party’s big priority is to grow its vote in the Republic where it is campaigning against austerity. Welfare reform here would reduce the rate of increase in the welfare budget rather than actually cutting it, but that is still not the image Sinn Fine wants. At the same time it does not want to be seen as the party that collapses the institutions because it could not take hard financial decisions.
But as Liam Clarke also noted
This issue cannot be solved by an election here anymore than taking a vote on Isis would end beheadings in Syria.
So, then what?
Adds So who’s left for further negotiations? The Lib Dems?
It is understood that Mr McGuinness made a personal appeal to the Liberal Democrat leader at a meeting of the British Irish Council in Guernsey in June.
He told the Deputy Prime Minister that since the British Government had got us into our present difficulties by introducing welfare reform, it would have to get us out of them.
Mr Clegg gives short shrift to this suggestion in the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by the Belfast Telegraph. Referring to the Guernsey meeting he writes: “I am afraid there is no possibility of further negotiations on additional changes to these reforms.”
He outlines plans for Universal Credit, a new super benefit. In Britain it will replace six existing benefits including Jobseekers Allowance, Tax Credits, Income Support and Housing Benefit.
He states that if we do not adopt it then the cost of maintaining the benefits it replaces “need to become the sole responsibility of Northern Ireland”.