“Now it seems that Sinn Fein is realising how badly exposed its negotiators left it to accusations of a sell-out.”

In today’s Irish News John Manley does everyone a favour by identifying Sinn Fein’s problem with the agreement they signed up to in December.

The nub of the problem appears to lie in the figures contained in the Stormont Castle Agreement, an agreement within an agreement negotiated between the five parties days before the final accord was signed off on December 23.

In annex A of this sub-agreement, the figures for the planned welfare safety net are outlined.

It earmarks £413million over the next six years for dealing with the transition from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment.  A further £125m is allocated over six years for assisting those impacted by changes to other benefits, including the disability premium and the benefits cap – the so-called Supplementary Payment Fund.

However, whereas Sinn Féin appears to have previously accepted that £125m provided adequate protection, revised figures suggest it would actually cost nearly four times that amount if everybody – new and existing claimants included – were to be topped up to current benefit levels. [added emphasis]

That “agreement within an agreement” is available via the News Letter here.  It was published by the NI Executive in the middle of February, as the News Letter reported at the time.

On Monday, First Minister Peter Robinson published the Stormont Castle Agreement — a deal between the Executive party leaders just four days before the Stormont House Agreement.

Mr Robinson revealed the existence of the agreement a week ago in the Assembly chamber, quickly leading to the Green Party leader Steven Agnew and TUV leader Jim Allister pressing each Executive party to agree to its publication.

Sinn Fein was the final party to agree to allow the document to be published.

What’s significant about this is that the £125million allocated over six years, £25m in 2015/16 and £20m per year subsequently to 2020/21 – the so-called Supplementary Payment Fund – is part of the £564million taken from the Northern Ireland Block Grant that Sinn Féin have been proclaiming that they had negotiated to achieve “a welfare system better than the one in Britain, by an average of £94m per year.[13 Feb]”  [But not ‘better’ than the one in Scotland… – Ed]

Apparently, they’ve now realised that’s not enough to meet their subsequent promises…

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr McGuinness said that figures provided by the Department of Social Development showed that apart from the £125m that has been promised in the deal, a further £200m was needed “to protect the most vulnerable in our society”.

He insisted the deal struck at Stormont last December protected payments made to present and future recipients of welfare in several categories.

The DUP leader said there is an agreed budget line of over £125 million in a pot of over £500m, and Sinn Féin’s demand would require finding an additional £300m over the next six years.

One possible solution would be identifying such resources elsewhere in Stormont’s finances.

However, that would involve raiding some other departmental budget line, which may be difficult given the public element of the disagreement.

As Mick noted at the time, Sinn Fein’s apparent confusion between what they claimed to have signed up for, and what they had actually committed to, was highlighted during the NI Assembly debate on the Welfare Bill by NI Green Party leader, Steven Agnew.

I am sorry to say this to Sinn Féin, but if that is what they signed up for, it is not what they committed to. Mr Maskey alluded to the previous petition of concern that three parties were going to sign and that would have stopped the bedroom tax. What we are being presented with is a five-year deferral. It is not the ending of the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland, but a deferral so that we can build more houses.

Is it what was promised: to ensure that the bedroom tax did not apply in Northern Ireland? No, because, right now, the Department for Social Development is ensuring that more one-bedroom houses are being built. It would not be doing that were it not for the intention to introduce the bedroom tax at a later stage. [Emphasis added]

Sam McBride in the News Letter today

The Stormont House Agreement mentions the word “welfare” 11 times and nowhere does it state that no benefit claimants will lose money – an impossible task if Stormont is not to decimate the budgets of other departments.

The nearest it came to any detail on the welfare changes was the vague statement that there would be “further work to develop and implement flexibilities and top-ups from the block grant as part of a package of measures to address local need”. Yet Sinn Fein not only endorsed that wording, but took considerable political flak to sell the deal right up until Saturday.

In the end, December’s deal was agreed in haste when the Government threatened to wind up the moribund talks process. Now it seems that Sinn Fein is realising how badly exposed its negotiators left it to accusations of a sell-out. [added emphasis]

[Reverse ferret! – Ed] Indeed.

And while the Northern Ireland First and deputy First Ministers fly off to the US, hoping that next week’s invite to the White House is still valid, trade unions here are taking industrial action over the cuts to departmental budgets that are already being imposed.

Adds As the BBC NI Economics & Business Editor, John Campbell, points out

…other publicly available figures do make £94m a year look on the low side for full mitigation.

For example, in 2015/16 the Treasury had planned to impose a £114m “fine” on Stormont for not implementing welfare changes.

This implies that the Treasury believes welfare reforms should save £114m.

Research carried out for the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action by Sheffield Hallam University forecasts that the impact of changes to DLA, Housing Benefit and the Benefit Cap would amount to £128m a year.

And yet, £94million a year for the mitigating schemes up to 2020/21 is what Sinn Féin had endorsed…

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