|Sinn Féin MLA and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness|
Sinn Féin 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 late 1960s, known as The Troubles.
The same day, Sinn Féin 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 recent Stormont House Agreement (SHA) – a five party agreement covering national identity issues, welfare reform and government finance in northern Ireland that was agreed to on December 23 last year, after several months of fraught negotiations.
Throughout last year, disagreements between Sinn Féin and the DUP on a range of issues escalated dangerously, and there was growing risk that failure to arrive at an agreement on the SHA might bring down the Stormont administration.
Ireland's north is formally governed by a strained power-sharing executive arrangement between the republicans of Sinn Féin and the ultra-loyalist DUP, the purse strings – and the power they bring – 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 of pounds have been stripped from the Stormont budget over the past four years. Despite this, the north has managed to avoid the worst excesses of austerity – but at a cost.
As punishment for Sinn Féin 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 £5 million per month, and forcing it to take out a £100 million loan to pay for basic services.
The British government has already indicated that further cuts to the Block Grant will follow.
Welfare a “red-line” issue
During negotiations for the SHA, Sinn Féin described protections to shield welfare recipients – both now and in the future – as a “red-line” issue, and made its support for any agreement contingent on the mitigation of welfare cuts to the most vulnerable.
The agreement reached on December 23 appeared to meet this demand, with plans for a package of £565 million over six years to create mitigation funds, including a Supplementary Payment Fund specifically for children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities, and the long-term sick.
|The DUP's Mervyn Storey, First Minister Peter Robinson and Jim Wells|
Despite their assurances, however, the DUP refused to disclose to Sinn Féin the details of the policy proposals and funding they intended to bring before the Assembly.
On February 19, Sinn Féin was provided with a draft paper which indicated that the DUP bill would only protect existing claimants, and even then only partially.
Further documents – apparently given to Sinn Féin by mistake – also showed that the DUP had deliberately misled Sinn Féin on the cost of the mitigation funds and had withheld key documents.
The DUP also intended to put the welfare bill forward with a secret “enabling clause” allowing the direct implementation of welfare schemes that Sinn Féin had not seen.
Sinn Féin 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 Féin withdrew its support for the welfare bill on March 9.
McGuinness accused the DUP of reneging on their commitments to protect the most vulnerable, and of attempting 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 Féin certainly will not accept that approach.”
An ideological attack on the welfare state
While critical of the DUP, 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 Féin endorsed the Welfare Bill."
“Nowhere were these protections qualified until 19 February. Since then we have been trying to get a resolution to this issue and we remain committed to that goal.”
Responding to criticisms that Sinn Féin had “done a U-turn” on the welfare bill, or was acting cynically for its own political gain, Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy released a dossier of documents on March 11, in support of Sinn Féin's account of events.
In an article in An Phoblacht on March 2, Murphy also called for the further devolution of revenue-raising, financial and economic powers in northern Ireland in order to ”improve economic prosperity, equality and human well-being” in the six counties, and to offset British cuts.
Job cuts and protests
Even if the renewed negotiations are successful on protecting welfare recipients, however, other measures in the SHA are predicted to result in thousands of job losses in the public sector over the next few years.
|Unions rally outside Belfast Town Hall|
Brian Campfield, general secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, the largest public sector union, hailed the strike 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," he said.
The public sector accounts for nearly 70 percent of GDP in the North – directly or indirectly employing nearly one-third of the workforce – and the heavy reliance on government spending makes the region particularly vulnerable to austerity policies.
In a statement, Unite regional secretary Jimmy Kelly warned 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 Féin also joined the actions across the North, despite criticism from some unions, who called on Sinn Féin to “square the circle” of opposing austerity on the streets while voting in Stormont for a budget containing cuts to services and jobs.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams released a statement on the strikes on March 13, again apportioning blame to the British government and stressing Sinn Féin's support for the union protests.
“The Tory-led British government has pursued a brutal austerity agenda in the north of Ireland,” Adams said.
“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.”