Posted By: June 04, 2015

Newt Emerson. Irish News ( Belfast). Thursday, June 4, 2015
WHAT if you had a crisis and nobody cared? As tensions on the streets perceptibly fail to rise, some of our political leaders almost appear concerned that we are not taking their latest dispute seriously.

Martin McGuinness spent last weekend warning that any outcome other than having all his party’s demands met would be “unacceptable”. Oh, the big scary ex-Provo is coming to get us! But get us with what, exactly?

Sinn Féin has already as good as admitted it will not even flounce off in a huff, so McGuinness’s threats just made him sound like a spoofer.

The deputy first minister also said the Irish and American governments should join with all the Stormont parties plus the Cardiff and Edinburgh super councils to lobby against welfare reform. This is the natural extension of Sinn Féin’s remarkable logic that disagreement will cease once everyone agrees with it. Would that work the other way around? Alas, all that came of this call for international solidarity was a letter from Jim Walsh and Bruce Morrison, Sinn Féin’s two favourite US congressmen, solemnly reported by Radio Ulster as if they had written it on their own initiative. In time-honoured Northern Ireland fashion it must be added that both sides are as bad as each other. DUP finance minister Arlene Foster has warned that failure to enact welfare reform will not lead – as everyone had assumed – to a relatively painless 5 per cent budget cut imposed by a civil servant, because a technical accounting rule requires across-the-board cuts of 28 per cent instead. This would cause a funding Armageddon, or Fundageddon, which would be no fun at all. It is almost as if Foster wants to stop people deciding the crisis is not a crisis. Yet as former SDLP special adviser Michael McKernan has pointed out on news website The Detail, the idea that Fundageddon would be tolerated to preserve a technical accounting rule is laughable.

Welfare reform should have been resolved this time last year under rules of comparable stature but their immoveable June deadline was allowed to slip back to July, then October, then January and now imminently beyond June again, in much the same way Camp Twaddell’s Orangemen can leave home twice without going home once.

Meanwhile, secretary of state Theresa Villiers has interrupted her magnificently disdainful detachment to warn of chaos if everyone does not agree with the Conservative Party, because she has an audience to consider as well.

Politics is showbusiness for ugly people, so the worst thing that can happen during a dramatic performance is an apathetic drift out of the stalls. My colleague Alex Kane has written that Stormont will end not with a bang but with a shrug. Public reaction to the welfare ‘crisis’ raises the prospect of devolution being laughed off the stage – or more accurately and humiliatingly, being laughed into irrelevance while still on the stage, hamming it up with increasing desperation.

Hamming the crisis up has not been solely the preserve of elected politicians. The epitome of third-sector grandstanding was the repeated insistence by Nicva, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, that welfare reform would take £750m a year out of the economy. By the time Nicva conceded this was absolute nonsense it had already made compromise harder for Sinn Féin ahead of the Stormont House talks.

Similar civic society bleating is ubiquitous, although deliciously such groups are first in line to have their funding cut under the budgetary shortfall they have helped to create. Thank goodness a redistribution of wealth from the privileged middle classes to people on benefits is what they all claim to want.

Nicva’s figures were ultimately debunked by the media. However, less objective welfare issues expose a reporting bias, not of the pro-Sinn Féin or anti-Tory variety but simply due to confusion over how to ‘balance’ stories involving benefit claimants. Is their opposite number an aggrieved taxpayer or a heartless Tory? How is that presented? The resulting coverage has too often been hysterical, sentimental and anecdotal, creating an absurd impression of a callous, impoverished society.

In fact, most benefit recipients are taxpayers and most Labour voters back welfare reform too. The opposite of being on benefits is getting off benefits, which is what welfare reform is supposedly about. Stormont, civic society and the media in Northern Ireland have either failed to grasp that or declined to explain it. Their ensuing attempts to turn a drama into a crisis are now turning into a