Sinn Fein and SDLP welfare posturing a turn off

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

The scale of chancellor George Osborne’s tax credits climbdown was a surprise but major changes in his spending review had been anticipated for months. Picture by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire 
The scale of chancellor George Osborne’s tax credits climbdown was a surprise but major changes in his spending review had been anticipated for months. Picture by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire 

AMERICAN TV host Jon Stewart coined the term ‘a common man-off’ to describe two politicians posturing over who is the more down to earth.

The fall-out from the Fresh Start agreement is providing copious quantities of the Northern Ireland equivalent, as Sinn Fein and the SDLP engage in a most vulnerable-off.

Who this posturing is aimed at is a mystery as May’s Westminster election showed nationalist voters find the most vulnerable-off a bit of a turn off.

Little wonder, when genuinely vulnerable claimants are not targeted by welfare reform - even in the unmitigated Tory Westminster version - while existing claimants have always been fully protected from Universal Credit changes.

The whole Stormont-stalling charade has been irresponsible scaremongering from start to finish. It also raises a wider question about our shiny new democracy.

Now that we finally have opposition and a de facto two-party executive, must our choice on each side consist of two identical parties, each trying to trip each other up on the same spot?


The scale of chancellor George Osborne’s tax credits climbdown was a surprise but major changes in his spending review had been anticipated for months.

So why was half the Fresh Start agreement’s funding devoted to offsetting tax credit cuts?

Why did Sinn Fein cite this to justify its welfare reform climbdown and boast of spending the past four months negotiating it?

The DUP might have needed its ducks in a row in time for Peter Robinson’s conference resignation but what was Sinn Fein’s urgency to make a fool of itself for the sake of waiting a week?

After all, it had enough guile and foresight to hand welfare powers back to Westminster for the next 12 months. Fresh Start increasingly looks like a case of the Overplayed Hand of Ulster.


If the post-Robinson DUP is going to split, there was little sign of it at last weekend’s conference.

A Belfast Telegraph poll of 50 out of the 600 delegates found 98 per cent wanted Arlene Foster as the next first minister and 98 per cent were surprised to find the IRA army council still exists. In other words, just one person was off message.

No doubt they have since been hunted down.


An important detail in George Osborne’s spending review is the stamp duty rise for second and buy-to-let homes, except for corporate landlords and those with more than 15 properties.

This is a very specific and lucrative targeting of problems in the private rental market, currently the subject of an interminable Stormont review.

In 2009, Westminster’s Calman Commission on Scottish devolution identified stamp duty as one of the simplest taxes to devolve and administer.

Two years later, a similar commission for Wales recommended stamp duty as the first tax that should be devolved, contrasting it with the complexity of corporation tax.

So this power, plus the significant revenue and policy benefits that go with it, could have been Stormont’s for the asking years ago. But it never asked - and now it is too late.


A little noticed detail in the Fresh Start agreement is the civic panel, a six-member miniature version of the Good Friday Agreement’s civic forum.

Sinn Fein and the DUP decided not to resurrect the forum at the resumption of devolution in 2007 but within a few years Gerry Adams had tacked it on to his list of allegedly unmet demands from the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, the other two being an Irish language act and the bill of rights.

The civic panel is Fresh Start’s only concession to that list, although there may have been rumours of something more substantial.

The ‘civil society network’ launched last month looked very much like a civic forum in waiting.


On Wednesday morning, apropos of apparently nothing, the assembly’s media office tweeted: “Did you know that committees scrutinise bills before they become law?”

There was an accompanying graphic of the legislative process with ‘Committee Stage’ circled in red.

This was of course the stage that Sinn Fein and the DUP suspended last week by amending standing orders, so they could undevolve welfare powers to London without scrutiny.


When the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson proposed moving Trident to Northern Ireland in the House of Commons on Monday, he was clearly making a joke at the expense of the SNP.

David Cameron responded in similar humour, to the great amusement of MPs.

Yet Radio Ulster’s Nolan and Talkback shows spent the first half of the following day reporting the story as if it was serious, mainly as a lazy lure for phone calls from the most vulnerable.

By coincidence, the assembly was debating a Sinn Fein condemnation of the cost of Trident at the same time, so DUP representatives were soon defending both that and Donaldson’s suggestion.

We talk a lot about sham fight distractions in Northern Ireland but rarely has one been so ridiculously obvious.


The word of the week is ‘Englified’, as used by loyalist ex-prisoner and community worker Jim Wilson on the Nolan show. Wilson meant Anglicised but he appears to have Hibernicised it.