Crisis talks have begun Northern Ireland as politicians grapple to bring the Stormont parliament back from the brink of collapse.
Representatives of all the main Northern Irish parties are joined by Conservative MP and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers representing the British government and Foreign Affairs Minister for the Republic of Ireland, Charlie Flanagan.
Speaking earlier this week, DUP First Minister Peter Robinson said that if a satisfactory resolution is not reached soon, his party will resign from Stormont. The Northern Ireland Secretary of State has said that under those circumstances, the Conservatives are prepared to implement welfare reform themselves from London.
The talks will focus on two main issues: the apparent return of the IRA and Northern Ireland’s refusal to implement welfare reform.
Throughout the last month, news that the IRA continues to exist and carried out an execution in August has dominated headlines. It was cited by the Ulster Unionists as the reason why they resigned from the Executive last week and has been the cause of much speculation and dramatic declarations from parties on both sides.
However, the issue of welfare reform has plagued and threatened the Northern Ireland Assembly just as much. It stems from when the coalition government set about implementing austerity and welfare cuts in the mainland UK. While welfare issues are technically a devolved matter for Northern Ireland to legislate on, it has always mirrored welfare reforms in the UK mainland under the “parity principle”. But as the coalition set about imposing stringent cuts, serious concerns were raised that it would be simply too much for Northern Ireland to cope with.
Owing to physical injuries and emotional trauma sustained in The Troubles, a significant number of Northern Irish people rely on disability benefits. The state also has much higher unemployment levels than England. Large families, particularly among Northern Ireland’s Catholic communities, are more common than in England, meaning that changes to child benefit, for instance, affect them disproportionately.
While all the parties understood that welfare reform could not be enacted as it had in England, they were bitterly divided over what form its replacement could take. The Unionist parties including the UUP and DUP are right-wing, whilst the Nationalist parties are left-wing, with Sinn Fein in particular identifying as socialists. As a result, they have vastly different visions of how much state support vulnerable people should receive.
After much debate between the parties, the “Stormont House agreement” was settled on shortly before Christmas. This would see a benefit cap introduced to Northern Ireland, as well as greater benefits sanctions and stronger powers for authorities in the case of benefits fraud. However, when it came to passing the bill in the Assembly, Sinn Fein blocked it and said they’d been misled in the talks.
Since then, the parliament has been strained. The British Treasury has been penalising it by £10m every month for its failure to reach welfare agreement. The IRA’s return might have been what pushed Stormont over the edge, the welfare impasse meant it had been hanging precariously close to the precipice for months.
Accordingly, the current crisis talks will seek to reach agreement on the two issues of the IRA and of welfare reform concurrently. Arguably, there is no sense in resolving one issue without the other. If fears about the IRA are placated enough for the Unionist parties to agree to stay in the parliament, what use is that when the parliament won’t pass fundamental laws? Equally, if Northern Ireland can agree on welfare reform, it will be no use if fears about the IRA mean that there is no parliament in existence to enact the agreed legislation.
This dual approach doubles both the risks and the rewards in the talks. If the governments succeed in resolving one issue but not the other, they could walk away with nothing. However, if they get it right, Northern Ireland’s power sharing institutions could be firmly back on track. The talks are expected to last over the next 4-6 weeks as the parties thrash it out. All involved will be hoping that it’s a risk that pays off.