The warning is there in Martin McGuinness’ speech to his party’s ard fheis on Friday evening.
Of course, as George Mitchell famously pointed out, the most difficult phase of any agreement is the implementation. That is the phase we are now in but let me give you this commitment: The welfare protections we agreed are an absolute red line issue for SF. No matter how difficult the implementation process may get, we will not – under any circumstances – tolerate any retreat from them.
But the overall tone was much more upbeat and pointed to the Stormont House Agreement and protections of welfare reform as an example of successful negotiation.
… the Executive is forced to make difficult choices and for Sinn Fein these choices are entirely based on our defence of the welfare state and the protection of the most vulnerable. That is why … we delivered £564m additional welfare protection …
We also agreed [emphasis added] with the DUP and the other Executive parties a package of protection for those who would have faced benefit cuts as a result of welfare reform. Our protected welfare system has eliminated the Tory cuts which are being imposed on the most vulnerable in Britain and which they sought to impose here on our most vulnerable. To achieve this protection we collectively committed £564m over the next six years – money which will remain directly in the hands of the most vulnerable. If that injection of funds into the welfare system was replicated in the south it would be in the region of 2.2 billion euros.
The categories of welfare recipients we have protected include children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities and families who would have been affected by the benefit cap. In addition the punitive bedroom tax has been neutralised. No-one in the north of Ireland will pay a bedroom tax. We will not be part of an agenda which pushes more children into poverty or targets the disabled as a way to save money. That is why we negotiated and agreed to protect those benefits under the control of the Assembly so that the categories of claimants targeted by the Tories in Britain will be protected by the unique measures we are putting in place here.
But at this morning’s press conference, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of “reneging on their commitments to protect the most vulnerable”, saying that their unionist partner in government would “provide only partial protection to current recipients of benefit and no protection whatsoever for future claimants”. [Ed – that would have raised the roof if he’d said it in the Millennium Forum at the weekend!]
We are now pursuing a Petition of Concern.
Politically, the party held back on making this announcement to avoid overshadowing the other key messages at the ard fheis. Gerry’s rubber ducky socks and messages of southern political ambition and anti-austerity would have been severely diluted if a northern political crisis had been announced.
Jonathan Powell and Tony Blair will not be surprised. NI politicians have a long history of wheeling and dealing long after the ink is dry on an agreement.
The institutions are no more at risk that they were this time last week. We’re just playing rough in the political sandpit. The crisis will be averted. In the meantime, a lot of fingers will be pointed between the corridor between the First and deputy First Ministers’ rooms.
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Alasdair McDonnell accused Sinn Féin of “having abused” the SDLP prior to today’s “U-turn” …