The continuing welfare impasse shows that peace will survive the suspension of the Assembly

On the surface at least, few outside the place are noticing. The public seem to be ignoring it, as if in a dream. Civil society stays generally schtum, like jobsworths in the old Soviet society. The parties are crying for attention. Gerry Adams has been polishing up his narrative of entitlement

“By slashing hundreds of millions of pounds from the finances of the North’s Executive, the British government has attacked the ability of the political institutions to deliver for citizens.”

Mr Adams added that over many decades, successive British governments invested “limitless financial resources to pursue a military agenda” in Northern Ireland.

“They now need to bring a similar commitment to building the peace. A new approach is required from the British government – one based on investment, which would allow the political institutions to grow and develop the economy for the benefit of all our citizens.”

A fundamental question of our time is this. How special is Northern Ireland, sixteen years after the GFA? It took time for the DUP to realise that the era of Downing St sofa government was over. Sinn Fein still try to play the White House card which Arlene Foster contemptuously dismisses.

Brian Feeney in the Irish News has a different narrative which swipes in both directions.

Nothing substantial has been done since Peter Robinson reneged on his agreement for a Reconciliation Centre at the Maze in August 2013.

It’s pretty clear Robinson could not push through the provisions in the Stormont House Agreement on victims, the past and parades against his dissidents. He failed in 2010 and there’s no sign anything has improved.

( Sinn Féin) have lost direction. They’ve forgotten their raison d’etre in the north. Flying to Washington about welfare funding is piddling stuff. No one in the party is articulating how to advance their fundamental aim, Irish unity. Instead there is monthly waffle about reconciliation and ‘uncomfortable conversations’ to which not a single unionist politician responds or ever will.

The old tactics are looking past their sell-by date. Even “the fundamental aim” is looking jaded. The public are less and less responsive when the familiar buttons are pressed.  Peace has exponentially reduced Sinn Fein’s leverage. The DUP never possessed the same clout in loyalist communities . With the aim of uniting unionism looking more distant than ever, the DUP remain vulnerable to challenge in the loyalist streets.

Peace gave them all the chance of re-ordering the priorities away from the politics of symbolism to substance. So far they’ve largely blown it. So how special is Northern Ireland now? It is easy and entirely fair to dismiss Adams’ case as special pleading. But there are real issues of poverty and welfare that are not addressed by the UK government’s narrative of economic progress. Cameron is sticking to the line that  the Troubles legacy was specifically acknowledged by the £2 billion package of the Stormont House Agreement which Sinn Fein endorsed and then denounced. This was not the move of a party in control of its strategy, It was another example of the economic illiteracy of a political class with too little to say beyond the politics of identity.

The impasse has echoes of the Greek crisis.  In a month or so we may expect something more than stonewalling from the British government. But not much. If Stormont was to show a little wiling, Westminster should  further ease the terms of the payback for the “fines” for failing to pass a balanced budget.

The Conservative government seem determined to face down the challenge of nationalism in Scotland and Northern  Ireland in the interests of creating a smaller  state and rebalancing the economy.  If it comes to it, they are acting in he belief that Northern Ireland will withstand a suspension of the Assembly and a regrouping  for next May’s elections. The Irish government – and probably Fianna Fail – who have their own not dissimilar  ” austerity” agendas – will  gulp and agree. The parties are no longer fundamental to what is still termed  “the peace process.”

That is not to say that Westminster can afford to nothing but tough it out.  Beyond a conditional promise to devolve corporation tax to a rate  below  the newly lowered UK rate,  they  have yet to explain how rebalancing would quickly  compensate  for Northern  Ireland’s  uniquely high public spending.  Sinn Fein, lacking the competence  to debate on economic terms, prefers to beat the old drum that stood them so well in the early days of  peace. But today is different. They were given no mandate to withdraw from Stormont in such a situation. The public silence is deafening. Sinn Fein are in the unfamiliar position of being  forced to weigh the consequences of united condemnation by the British and Irish establishments and the abdication of responsibility to the people who elected them.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London