Welfare Reform’ Throws Stormont into Crisis

By Daniel Waldron

As we go to press, the stand-off over ‘welfare reform’ (benefit cuts) at Stormont continues. Just days after the election, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Greens signed a petition of concern to ensure the bill would be defeated in the Assembly. This has created a fresh crisis which threatens to undermine the agreements made at Stormont House and could destabilise the power-sharing institutions themselves. Rounds of talks between the main parties as well as the British and Irish governments have failed to bring any resolution.

Marty and Peter - Website- Welfare

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has warned that failure to implement welfare reform could lead automatically to a 5% funding cut across all departments, which would have a detrimental impact on frontline public services. The DUP insist there is no alternative and plan to put forward a ‘phantom budget’ to the Assembly Executive based on the assumption that welfare reform has been introduced. This could allow the Executive to limp forward for a time but will not bring a resolution to the crisis.

What lies behind the refusal to implement the welfare cuts by Sinn Fein and the SDLP? Is this a principled stand taken in the interests of the poor and vulnerable or just opportunistic grandstanding? An examination of events suggests it is the latter. Sinn Fein have twice signed up to implement welfare reform – most recently in the Stormont House Agreement, along with all the Executive parties – only to retreat afterwards when faced with threats to their electoral prospects.

A key aim of the Sinn Fein leadership is to be in government – and potentially the largest party – on both sides of the border in the wake of Southern general and Assembly elections in 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising. This would be hugely symbolic and give the impression that the march towards a united Ireland continues. In the South, Sinn Fein’s rise in the polls has been based upon posing as an anti-austerity party. Implementation of brutal attacks on the disabled, sick and vulnerable at Stormont would be used to damage this image and would be hugely unpopular amongst their working class support base in the North. Faced with this reality, they have felt forced to posture on this issue. The SDLP understands that there are few votes to be won by being the pro-austerity nationalist party and have had to follow suit.

Sinn Fein’s concerns for their 2016 project were reinforced by the Westminster election results. Their share of the vote dropped overall, they failed to take any of their target seats and lost the knife-edge Fermanagh & South Tyrone seat to the UUP. In their heartland of West Belfast, they took a humiliating blow with their vote dropping 17% and People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll coming second. This was a warning that their role in implementing austerity could see them threatened by forces to their left. While the SDLP held all its seats, their vote also fell, particularly sharply in Alasdair McDonnell’s South Belfast constituency. Ever since the Good Friday Agreement, nationalist parties have traded off the notion that the Catholic community was moving forward politically and that life would improve economically. This has worn thin in the face of the real conditions facing working class people.

It is unclear how things may develop. Sinn Fein and the SDLP may feel it is not in their interests to implement welfare reform in advance of Assembly elections which are now less than a year away, even if that meant a temporary collapse of the Executive. The Tory government – emboldened by its election victory and determined to drive forward with austerity – is unlikely to make significant concessions, given the signal this would send to the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales. It is possible, however, that some small concessions could be made, some “new” money found which Sinn Fein and the SDLP can claim as a victory. Alternatively, the Westminster government may impose welfare reform over the heads of the Assembly Executive, allowing the local politicians to wash their hands of responsibility.

What is clear is that Sinn Fein and the SDLP have no strategy to defeat the cuts, only to spread them across other public services. They embrace the logic of austerity, signing up – along with the unionist parties and Alliance – to 20,000 job losses at Stormont House and championing a cut to corporation tax which would transfer hundreds of millions from public services to the profits of big business. It is up to the trade union movement, independent of any of the sectarian parties, to lead the way in resisting welfare reform and all the cuts to jobs and services. Only a determined fightback involving industrial action, mobilising support from the communities and linking up with those facing the same attacks in Scotland, England and Wales can protect the most vulnerable and derail the austerity agenda.