“Section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 recognises the long-established principle of parity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on social security. I acknowledge that the parity principle is, to some extent, frustrating to an Assembly that is keen to pass its own laws and form its own policies. However, the Northern Ireland social security system is not self-financing. The cost of paying benefits in Northern Ireland is subsidised heavily by Great Britain.
“For example, in 2005-06, to meet its benefit obligations, the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund needed a transfer of £185 million from the Great Britain National Insurance fund. In the same period, expenditure on non-contributory benefits, which are demand led and financed from taxation revenue, was more than £2·26 billion. The funding depends on parity. Therefore, when Members ask what reason we have for maintaining parity, the answer is that there is approximately £2·4 billion worth of reasons.”
So said SDLP Social Development Minister (with responsibility for welfare) Margaret Ritchie in 2007.
However, as Sinn Féin inched towards doing the responsible thing, precisely as the SDLP had advocated while in the relevant office, the SDLP flipped its position. It did so purely in a ham-fisted attempt at electoral distinctiveness.
The widespread view now is that Sinn Féin pulled this stunt in its own ham-fisted attempt at deflecting attention from allegations in last night’s BBC Spotlight programme.
This means by signing the Petition of Concern the SDLP has now become part of a conspiracy to divert attention from victims by pursuing a policy they themselves have demonstrated to be impossible, thus endangering the institutions.
And why do so few ask them about this? What precisely does the SDLP want to slash from public spending to cover the gap they themselves defined? Let’s hear where the billions are to be taken from. Hospitals? Schools? Public safety? (Selling forests doesn’t quite cover it, to be quite clear about that.)
As one correspondent over on Slugger put it:
“This is what happens when parties like the SDLP pursue a dishonest policy, feeling safe in the knowledge that they will never be called upon to act to support it. They thought, like many of us, that they could safely criticize Sinn Féin for upholding parity knowing that there was no alternative. They did not anticipate that SF would bring down Stormont in order to protect themselves from abuse allegations. Their bluff has been called – and it’s not going to go well for them.”
Populism is causing a crisis in western democracy and, in Northern Ireland, the once arch defenders of the Agreement, the SDLP’s populism has enabled that crisis to take place.
The SDLP had to yield on the National Crime Agency. It has better find a way to yield on welfare too. After all, on their own terms, there are now “£3.1 billion worth of reasons” to do so…