Sinn Fein MLA and Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness indicated on March 9 that his party would oppose the new welfare reform bill in the northern Irish Assembly in the six Irish counties still occupied by Britain.
McGuinness accused government partners the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of acting in bad faith. Sinn Fein is in a power-sharing arrangement as part of the Good Friday peace agreement signed in 1998, which sought to end the violence that had wracked Ireland's north since the 1ate 1960s, known as The Troubles.
The same day, Sinn Fein moved a Petition of Concern — supported by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) — in the Assembly to prevent the passage of the bill, which would impose cuts to welfare. This forced the DUP Minister for Social Development, Mervyn Storey, to withdraw the bill and re-enter talks to resolve the stand-off.
The welfare reform bill forms part of the recently agreed Stormont House Agreement (SHA). This is a five-party agreement covering national identity issues, welfare reform and government finance in northern Ireland that was agreed to on December 23 after months of fraught negotiations.
With disagreements on a range of issues building to a breaking point between Sinn Fein and the DUP, there was a risk that failure to reach agreement on the SHA could bring down the power-sharing administration at Stormont.
Ireland's north is formally governed by a strained power-sharing executive arrangement between the republicans of Sinn Fein and the ultra-loyalist (pro-British) DUP. The purse strings are held firmly by the British government, via the Northern Irish Office.
This arrangement has been in place since March 2007, when limited political power was devolved to the Assembly in Stormont as part of the peace process.
As part of Britain's Conservative-led government's harsh austerity policies, billions in pounds have been stripped from the Stormont budget in recent years. Despite this,
Stormont has managed to avoid the worst excesses of austerity — but at a cost.
As punishment for Sinn Fein delaying the imposition of welfare cuts last year, the British government cut Stormont's Block Grant — the money the six counties get from the British Treasury — by fining the administration million of pounds and forcing it to take out a £100 million loan to pay for basic services.
During SHA negotiations, Sinn Fein described protections to shield welfare recipients — now and in the future — as a “red-line” issue. It made its support for any agreement contingent on mitigating welfare cuts to the most vulnerable.
The agreement reached on December 23 appeared to meet this demand. It included a package of £565 million over six years to create funds to mitigate the cuts, including a Supplementary Payment Fund specifically for children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities, and the long-term sick.
Full protection for current and future claimants of welfare benefits in the deal also seemed confirmed on January 12, when Storey told the Assembly there would be “no one … adversely affected as a result of the changes”.
However, the DUP refused to disclose to Sinn Fein the details of the policy proposals and funding it intended to bring to the Assembly.
DUP cuts revealed
On February 19, Sinn Fein was provided with a draft paper indicating that the DUP bill would protect only existing claimants, and even then only partially.
Further documents — apparently given to Sinn Fein by mistake — also showed that the DUP had deliberately misled Sinn Fein on the cost of the mitigation funds and had withheld key documents.
The DUP also intended to include a secret “enabling clause” in the welfare bill to allow direct implementation of welfare schemes that Sinn Fein had not seen.
Sinn Fein held several meetings with the DUP over these issues in early March, but after March 6 the DUP simply stopped engaging in discussions. In response, Sinn Fein withdrew its support for the bill on March 9.
McGuinness accused the DUP of reneging on commitments to protect the most vulnerable, and of trying to “effect Tory welfare cuts by subterfuge”.
“If the DUP want to strip benefits from children with disabilities, from adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick; or push children further into poverty, then they need to explain and justify that,” McGuinness said. “Sinn Fein certainly will not accept that approach.”
However, McGuinness laid the ultimate blame for the impasse at the feet of the British government, accusing it of an “ideologically driven attack on the welfare state”.
Before a meeting with British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, McGuinness said on March 13: “The current difficulties facing the Executive are a result of the British government’s Thatcherite policies, which are designed to attack the poor and the most vulnerable in our society.
“Theresa Villiers is not a neutral broker in the current dispute and the cuts agenda of the Tory-led British government is effectively crucifying the Stormont Executive.
“We have been very clear from the start that the protection of children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick and families with children was the basis on which Sinn Fein endorsed the Welfare Bill.”
Job cuts and protests
But even if the Sinn Fein-DUP negotiations are successful on protecting welfare recipients, other measures in the SHA are predicted to cause thousands of job losses in the public sector over the next few years.
The looming cuts to public sector spending have brought an angry response from trade unions. Tens of thousands of public sector workers took strike action on March 13, the largest union action in the north for several years.
Brian Campfield, general secretary of the north's largest public sector union, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, hailed the turnout: “The thousands of workers who participated in today's strikes and protests across Northern Ireland have sent a very clear message to the Northern Ireland political parties and leaders that they will not accept the decimation of our public services and jobs.”
The public sector accounts for nearly 70% of GDP in the north — directly or indirectly employing nearly one-third of the workforce. Such heavy reliance on government spending makes the region particularly vulnerable to austerity.
Unite regional secretary Jimmy Kelly warned in a statement that unless the unions stood up to the SHA, “we can expect another four years of even more punishing austerity budgets”.
“Instead of policies which seek to make the most vulnerable pay for a crisis they didn’t cause, Unite is calling for a growth strategy underpinned by public investment and strong public services,” he said.
“We want to rebalance our economy through growth, not through austerity.”
Sinn Fein also joined the protests. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said in a statement: “The Tory-led British government has pursued a brutal austerity agenda in the north of Ireland.
“Over one-and-a-half billion pounds has been stripped away from the North by London. The Stormont House Agreement did not resolve this issue of British Tory cuts to the block grant.
“Sinn Féin will continue to oppose austerity North and South and today's industrial action should form part of a united effort against austerity, involving political pressure, community opposition and industrial action.”
[Slightly abridged from Duroyan Fertl's Hintadupfing blog.]