The First Minister, Peter Robinson, outside Stormont. Photo: Getty Images
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Why an argument over welfare reform could have big consequences for Northern Ireland

Welfare reform could have momentous consequences for Northern Ireland and the future of the Stormont parliament.

The failure of the welfare bill in Stormont has thrown the Executive and Northern Irish politics into chaos and uncertainty. The welfare reform bill would have brought a number of reforms into action in Northern Ireland, including introducing the bedroom tax for those under 61. It has proved extremely contentious and the main parties had been locked in negotiations over the bill for months which culminated in last week’s vote. Despite a majority of MLAs voting for the bill, there is a mechanism, a petition of concern, which can be used to veto a bill when support doesn’t come from both communities. This was activated when Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green Party signed a petition of concern. This was a major incident in a prolonged impasse. The bill initially had the support of Sinn Féin and the SDLP however they are now claiming they were misled. The DUP have countered by suggesting that Sinn Féin are indulging in fantasy politics rather than being realistic.

If the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t reach an agreement, and after months of negotiation already they haven’t, Westminster may have to step in. Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has stated that although the preference is to avoid this, it is a distinct possibility. Westminster would then take control of implementing welfare reforms in Northern Ireland direct from London. It is particularly crucial to deal with the budgetary element quickly.

The Treasury is currently penalising Northern Ireland at a rate of around £10 million a month. Northern Ireland’s economic situation is perilously reliant on the public sector and public spending. Unemployment is currently at 6.2 per cent, higher than the UK average of 5.5 per cent.  Northern Ireland also has the highest proportion of public sector employment in the UK as well as higher than average rates of public spending per person. If they cannot manage the economy, then it could have severe implications for public spending. If the already high unemployment rises even further the Northern Ireland economy is likely to flounder. While Stormont has turned to third parties in the past to help with problems, this has always been related to problems involving the legacy of the Troubles rather than actual issues of governance such as the economy.

Westminster or civil servants taking control of the budget temporarily may provide enough space for negotiations but it is definitely a step backwards for the Belfast Agreement. The DUP has already called for Westminster to step into the breach. For them, while this is not ideal, Foster’s willingness to let Westminster take control, shows that it is unlikely they will pull out of government over this bill. Sinn Féin are also heavily invested in remaining in government and continuing to appear as if they are both anti-austerity but also a practical party of government. They’re facing elections in both Northern Ireland and Ireland in 2016. They are polling significant amounts of support in Ireland and are aiming to be in government in Ireland and Northern Ireland simultaneously in 2016, which is particularly symbolic as it’s the centenary of the Easter Rising. This could be endangered by them pulling out of the Executive, creating an image of unreliability. Particularly as economic credibility is one of the major question marks over Sinn Fein in Ireland. To pull out of the Executive now could have serious repercussion for Sinn Féin that will affect them both in and outside Northern Ireland. As such they are unlikely to want to risk that. It is also unlikely to save Northern Ireland from cuts as if the Executive falls, the reforms will most likely be implemented from London. If the Conservative government handles this well, they should be able to impose the cuts while maintaining the Stormont administration.

Another option is for Westminster to let a senior civil servant take over responsibility for welfare reform, which may be a somewhat more palatable option for the main parties in the short term, particularly if it was done from Belfast rather than London. This may be the best option for the Westminster government to take to protect the Executive. This would allow continued negotiations without Sinn Féin having to face the issue of Westminster taking control. With or without the Irish general election around the corner, they may feel that they have to pull out of the Executive if this were to occur. On the other hand, a senior civil servant in Belfast taking control may not be exactly what they want but it doesn’t have the same potent symbolic impact of Westminster going over the heads of the Stormont government. It may give Sinn Féin enough room to save face without pulling out of the Executive if they come under pressure in the way that Westminster taking power won’t.

It is vital now for the continued health of the Belfast agreement for this issue to be resolved. The Belfast agreement must grow and evolve, the alternative is stagnation and failure. For Westminster to take back powers, particularly permanently, will infantilise the Stormont government and put an end to further reconciliation. For progress to be made, the British government must facilitate further negotiations and devise a framework that makes Sinn Féin and the DUP come to an agreement rather than turning to Westminster or Washington every time they disagree. That is not the way of a functioning government, particularly as this disagreement could have significant economic implications. The welfare reform bill has destabilised the Stormont administration, now there are two options left to it. Either it can come out stronger or it can allow the government to crumble. One way or another, the impact of the Welfare Reform bill vote has the potential to be momentous for Northern Irish politics. 

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser