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Another fine mess at Stormont

The differences between the lead parties of the Stormont Coalition over the implementation of welfare cuts is the latest crisis to threaten the future of the power-sharing administration in Belfast, Justin O’Hagan reports.

While initially backing the welfare element of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) in December last year, in March, Sinn Féin withdrew its support, claiming that top-up schemes designed to prevent claimants under the new benefits system were not as comprehensive as it believed.

However, research in 2013 had estimated the impact of changes to Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Housing Benefit and the Benefit Cap at £128m a year, while Sinn Féin had agreed to £94 million a year for the mitigating schemes up to 2020/21.

As Stephen Agnew of the Green Party commented in June, “It would appear that Sinn Féin have found their calculator and, having done so, realised that their sums don’t add up.”

Another interpretation, put forward in a Green Party dossier, suggests that “The U-turn by Sinn Féin appears to have more to do with their electoral prospects in the Republic of Ireland than the needs of citizens in Northern Ireland.”

With an estimated £750m a year to be taken out of the local economy, Northern Ireland, will be the UK region worst affected by austerity measures, with Derry, Strabane, and Belfast to be hit hardest. The reforms will widen the economic gap between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and between richer and poorer parts of Northern Ireland.

In the Stormont House Agreement, Sinn Féin and the DUP accepted welfare cuts and public sector job losses in exchange for the power to cut corporation tax. For all its subsequent backtracking, and talk of “protecting the most vulnerable”, Sinn Féin, the DUP, SDLP and the Alliance Party have all endorsed the destruction of 20,000 public sector jobs. 2,800 job cuts in the civil service will be followed by cuts in other sectors including health and education. The Department of Education is planning to cut 560 teaching jobs and more than a thousand support jobs over the summer.

Sinn Fein, the DUP, SDLP and the Alliance Party have all endorsed the destruction of 20,000 public sector jobs.

Since March, Sinn Féin have both threatened the future of the lower Corporation Tax wheeze and supported a DUP-led ‘phantom budget’, which buys the Stormont Coalition a few more weeks before Sinn Féin will have to accept a new compromise or walk away from government and collapse the administration.

Should a compromise be cobbled together, the cuts which the coalition will oversee will hurt an already poor and neglected population. Workers in Northern Ireland are the worst paid in the UK, with 25%of the workforce paid below the Living Wage. Since 2007, real wages in Northern Ireland have fallen by 8%. The poverty rate in Northern Ireland has remained fairly stable since 2002/03, with approximately one fifth of the population living in poverty. The most recent figures indicate that approximately 376,000 individuals (21%) in the North were in poverty in 2013/14, including 101,000 children (23% of children).

It is no wonder that polls of the population show little faith in the Executive, and it is indicative that while 63% of respondents support one of the local parties, 26% said that they supported none of the parties on offer. The Left in Northern Ireland is small, divided and relatively weak but is the only force capable of addressing the structural challenges which society has thrown up. And events in Northern Ireland have continued to show that whatever else it is, Sinn Féin is definitely not a party of the Left.

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