It’s time we actually debate welfare reform

Graffiti on a Belfast Dole Office
Graffiti on a Belfast Dole Office

After weeks of debate about welfare reform in Northern Ireland, it must be said that we haven’t actually debated welfare or reform. In fact, the argument, at its core, has been about power and responsibility, which, at this point, neither the DUP or Sinn Féin seem to want.

We desperately need leadership and we’re not getting it. The debate about welfare reform should be about how to simultaneously protect the vulnerable from harsh cuts while balancing the government books. Instead, the two largest parties in the Assembly have focused on whether it’s worse to impose decisions made by London or make no decisions at all. Neither party has taken ownership of the situation and offered a way forward.

Northern Ireland isn’t alone in trying to stop the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have, for example, explicitly said they will try and delay the rollout of Universal Credit until Westminster devolves further powers to Scotland. The same kind of desire for control and responsibility of local affairs can’t be said to exist here in Northern Ireland. Our own brinksmanship-style politics instead threatens to send fiscal powers back to Westminster. In a worst case scenario where we return to Direct Rule, welfare reform, as a NICVA statement recently put it, “could be implemented at the strike of a pen with none of the mitigations” [previously negotiated by Sinn Féinn and the DUP].

The Tories and their Lib Dem coalition partners may be a bunch of baddies, but who will take the courage to stand over an alternative vision? The current situation is untenable. There isn’t the money in the public purse to sustain current levels of expenditure. What should we do about that? The DUP and Alliance are right to say that the financial reality of the situation cannot be ignored. But if the reforms are bad reforms (and they are bad reforms); if they will harm our communities, and lift no one out of poverty (as they are designed to do, remember); and if they force us into a new system that all our parties either oppose or voted against at Westminster, why shouldn’t we collectively stand up against them?

There are credible centre-left ideas about how to resolve our public expenditure crisis. We could implement Living Wage legislation, which would lift people out of poverty and bring down dependence on government subsidies, thereby relieving stress on the public purse. We could crack down on tax dodging, and make sure multinational corporations and the very rich pay their fair share of taxes, increasing government revenue.

There are centrist ideas that all of us could support as well. For example, we could challenge Westminster to decentralise the economy away from London and better invest in other regions, with the hope of sharing in some of the economic recovery the south east of England is experiencing.

Likewise, there are credible ideas on the right that the left should be willing to explore. The left tends to think of poverty solely in economic terms, avoiding its social and personal pathologies, such as the breakdown of family, alcohol and other drug addictions, teenage pregnancy, educational underachievement, and crime. The left has long claimed that the stress of financial hardship is to blame for such pathologies and tends to avoid deeper interrogation and engagement with them. The right is wrong to take the focus off of material deprivation when debating poverty. Higher wages, more jobs, an adequate social security net, and job protections are crucial to ending poverty and welfare dependency. But perhaps those of us on the left should give some credence to ideas championed by the right related to teenage pregnancy, the benefits of marriage, and stronger parenting. Accepting these social ideas does not undermine our ideas of a more fair and just economy.

The point is we need to debate how to lift people out of poverty and stabilise public expenditure. If Northern Ireland is to stand collectively against London-imposed welfare reforms and cuts, as Sinn Féin advocates, we need a strategic short-term and long-term plan, which they haven’t provided.

We should have been rigorously debating the above ideas for the last three years, but we didn’t, and so we’re stuck in a rut of negative politics, either defending a dysfunctional, bankrupt system we can’t afford, or accepting welfare reforms that everyone acknowledges will be bad for Northern Ireland. Despite the torpidity that hovers over the Assembly, however, if it collapses, it will be the poor and vulnerable that suffer the most. Direct Rule under a Tory government that does not understand the unique needs and issues of Northern Ireland will be to the detriment of our society. There really is no way forward except together. So if it’s going to be a new round of talks, as SOS Theresa Villiers has proposed, let’s make sure they go somewhere this time.

I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.