Impasse at Stormont

Posted By: May 29, 2015

Irish times Editorial. Friday,  29 29, 2015

Following the election of the majority Tory government and the queen’s speech this week,  it appears clear that Scotland is set to receive new devolved powers, albeit not as many as it would like, and that England and Wales too will see their MPs’ roles enhanced in dealing with their affairs. 

In Northern Ireland alone that tide of devolution seems to be moving remorselessly in the opposite direction, as Westminster, it appears, prepares to take back from the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive their responsibility at least for welfare, and possibly for the full range of devolved powers.
Northern Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has admitted that following the Sinn Féin/SDLP/Green veto on Wednesday of welfare “reform”, otherwise known as cuts, she is considering passing the necessary legislation through the Commons. Treasury penalties against the North’s budget for non-implementation of the cuts are also currently running at about £10 million a month – this financial year alone, £114 million of penalties. And the Tories have yet to specify where the next round – some £12 billion – of UK-wide welfare trimmings will come from.

Sinn Féin has hinted that the repatriation of powers may prompt it to withdraw from the Executive, effectively bringing the Northern institutions down. Other elements of the accord struck at Stormont House in December last between the Executive parties and both governments, such as the devolution of corporation tax powers, a major Civil Service redundancy scheme, and new structures to address the legacy of the Troubles, would also then be in jeopardy.

There is a new reality here – the days of the North’s “peace dividend”, aka special pleading, are over, in part as the years of violence recede in the memory, but not least because the Tories govern on their own. When Ms Villiers says “there is no more money”, it is not a negotiating ploy. 

Now the North’s parties have to confront for the first time properly the true nature of “devolution” – not the freedom to rule, not the small step towards independence, but the freedom to implement someone else’s budget. All complicated by the requirement in the North to do so in step with those whose politics and priorities are anathema.
That uncomfortable reality makes devolution a lot less appealing as a political dispensation. Ms Villiers has described the Executive as “dysfunctional”, implying perhaps that it’s just that the parties are misbehaving. But the truth is that the impasse is precisely a function of the complex compromises made to create the North’s unique system of government – at the end of the day parties like Sinn Féin are having to decide which is more important to them, the veneer of self-rule, or trying to protect welfare recipients. Politics is about choices and it’s looking increasingly likely that it’s not possible to do both.