“I think [UK Government] will take the power [of welfare] back themselves, I think they will legislate for it”

Domino CascadeStop to draw breath in Northern Ireland politics and someone sneaks out and tinkers with the chain of teetering dominoes.

To be fair the Stormont House Agreement dominoes were falling quite smoothly until the Monday morning after Sinn Féin’s ard fheis when their U-turn on welfare reform was announced and the party stuck a hand out and took a few of the black oblongs off the table and stopped the sequence.

Arlene Foster – on her first day in her new role as Finance Minister – referred to a “nuclear” scenario if the parties could not agree about welfare reform. The BBC explain:

Mrs Foster told the assembly that the budget is predicated on welfare reform being implemented half way through this year. She said if that did not happen, the Treasury would rpe Stormont’s departmental budgets by £114m. She added that other factors mean that “at the moment because the Stormont House Agreement has not been implemented… there’s a £500m hole in the budget”.

Mrs Foster said there were “around two weeks to deal with this matter” which is a “very short window of opportunity”. The minister said that after that there would have to be “contingency planning” which could involve the top civil servant in the Department of Finance taking over the budget. Mrs Foster said that scenario would be “pretty nuclear.”

“The financial package secured as part of the Stormont House Agreement paved the way for executive agreement on the 2015/16 budget,” she said. “However, in the absence of progress on welfare reform, we simply do not have a workable budget. Delays in implementation will undoubtedly have a significant impact on departmental budgets and would necessitate further cuts to public services.”

Prof Cathy Gormley-Heenan explained after lunchtime’s Ask the Campaign Insiders event that the decision to un-devolve welfare is not in the hands of the NI Executive. Northern Ireland can’t sweep these dominoes off the table … unless they want the entire Executive to fall. Welfare cannot be given back voluntarilty.

Instead, the Westminster Parliament alone has the power to reach across to NI and scoop up the wobbling pieces of devolution and take back control of welfare though simple, rapid and fairly humiliating legislation. This evening on Inside Politics, Peter Robinson has clarified how this controlled repatriation of powers could be achieved.

“Sinn Féin have to take a decision, that they are going to cut half a billion pounds of the budget in Northern Ireland, or else address the issue of welfare reform, there’s nothing in between,” he said.

When asked if the collapse of the Executive was a realistic option, Mr Robinson said: “I don’t think the [UK] government will allow that to happen, I think they will take the power back themselves, I think they will legislate for it.”

Whether first suggested by Arlene, Theresa or Peter, the threat to Sinn Féin is there. Get back to the negotiating table to sort out welfare reform or else London will take it out of our local hands and implement what they see fit – most likely a deal much worse than what the local parties could agree to in order not to take into account local circumstances.

Of course, whether the DUP explicitly agree that London should take back control of welfare, or whether they implicitly nod and turn their head the other way while it happens, the inability to work together with their partners associates in the NI Executive will clearly weaken the DUP’s hand when looking for side deals to pay for their support of any Tory motions in Westminster that rebel back-benchers succeed in undermining.

While the NI public don’t want public services to suffer, the DUP also runs the risk of finding out whether the public would reward parties that cannot come to a consensus, and whether they would lose voter trust with May 2016’s Assembly elections not long around the corner. Will voters impacted by Westminster-imposed cuts to welfare benefits – and no longer with an NI-funded safety net to compensate for the worst of the changes – reward the DUP at the next election? Or will they vote for anti-austerity parties to punish the DUP for looking the other way and letting Westminster rescue the otherwise-collapsed Stormont structures.

Plan B isn’t too palatable to the public or the parties. Everyone suffers from the ‘nuclear’ fallout. Instead it would be better if the players could regroup around the table and start setting the white-spotted dominoes back on the table and find the political maturity within themselves to come up with a compromise pattern that allows political processes to get back on track and avoid paralysis in the lead up to May 2016’s elections.

Of course then while we draw breath at the end of that panic, the Chancellor of the Exchequer  will sneak a few more dominoes onto the table in the name of a further UK budget with austerity cuts to welfare … and we’ll start the whole process again.

Domino image from Nauticashades

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