Henry Hill is a Conservative and Unionist activist and writer.

Sinn Fein welfare u-turn plunges NI back into crisis

The News Letter reports that the prospect of a sudden collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly is back on the cards after Sinn Fein reversed their acceptance of welfare reform mere hours before it was due to be debated.

Indeed only two days after leader Martin McGuinness praised the deal they had secured on welfare at the party conference.

Apparently Sinn Fein attempted a more than threefold expansion in the “top up” system they had negotiated to ensure that Northern Irish welfare recipients were not left worse off by incoming reforms.

The DUP claim that, after the republicans signed up to a £125 million fund for that purpose, they subsequently tried to broaden the scope of the scheme to the point where it would cost £411 million.

They then accused the DUP of ‘bad faith’ and vetoed welfare reform, renewing a crisis which has brewed for more than two years and seen £100 million in fines imposed on the Northern Ireland Executive by the Treasury for failing to meet its legal obligation to mirror mainland welfare policy.

As the BBC’s NI Political Correspondent Gareth Gordon reports, this is a genuine crisis. Welfare reform is a critical part of the Stormont House Agreement, negotiated to keep Northern Ireland’s political institutions afloat and provide Westminster assistance for the belated arrival of austerity to the province.

Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has confirmed that the entire deal is now in jeopardy.

Writing in the Spectator, Melanie McDonagh suggests that, with its hard-line anti-austerity policies north and south of the border, Sinn Fein is attempting to pose as an all-Irish equivalent of Syriza, the far left party governing Greece.

It was also mooted to me whilst in Belfast over the weekend that the Northern Irish parties are not used to the sort of unyielding position adopted by David Cameron during negotations last autumn.

Sinn Fein calculate that, if he loses office in May, a Labour administration will be less inclined to face a confrontation in Northern Ireland and more sympathetic to an anti-austerity posture.

This leaves the Government in a bind: nobody wants the devolved structures governing Northern Ireland to collapse, but it cannot afford to blink first lest London’s ability to negotiate with Belfast from a position of strength be fatally undermined.

Yet Sinn Fein blinked once. Cameron should stand his ground and stare them down.

Labour candidates rule out SNP pact on the doorstep

The Labour leadership may be fighting shy of disavowing a pact with the Scottish Nationalists after the election – but their MPs appear to have taken matters into their own hands.

LabourList reports that Labour MPs campaigning on the doorstep in Scotland are pledging to their electors that their party will not enter into an alliance with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament.

Indeed one anonymous MP goes so far as to say that, with the seeming exception of Jim Murphy, he or she is unaware of any of their colleagues who are advocating against that position.

Scottish Labour MPs appear to be concerned that without attacking the SNP they will bleed more votes to the party, whilst those in the North of England are concerned that their voters might react badly to the prospect of Scottish voters securing a better deal from Ed Miliband by electing nationalists.

All of this makes things difficult for Murphy, who apparently believes that attacking the SNP will only alienate swing voters from a Labour Party which is haemorrhaging Scottish support.

Indeed, so determined are elements of Murphy’s camp to sunder the Scottish party from the UK one that, according to the Herald, they have attempted to trademark the term ‘Scottish Labour Party’, in the hope of gifting it to their leader after he does what Murdo Fraser could not.

Such a party would have only ‘loose fraternal links’ with the British party, which is far more remote an arrangement than that proposed by Fraser for the Conservatives.

More bad tidings for Labour in Wales as support for more powers wanes

This week saw fresh bad news for Labour in Wales, following our breakdown of the electoral battlefield which demonstrated the impact on seats of LSE research showing the party has lost a third of its vote in the country.

First, Lord Ashcroft’s latest set of marginal seat polls revealed that, whilst the three English seats were neck and neck, the Conservatives have retained a comfortable lead in Vale of Glamorgan.

Now the BBC report that whilst 34 per cent of Welsh voters preferred David Cameron as Prime Minister, only 23 support Ed Miliband – an 11 point gap which will do nothing to cheer local activists.

More interestingly still the same poll found a nine point slump in support for more powers to the Welsh Assembly, from 49 per cent to 40 per cent.

Set against these, according to Prof Roger Scully of Cardiff University, were 33 per cent who thought the Assembly had sufficient powers, four per cent who thought it should have fewer and 13 per cent who wanted to scrap it altogether: a total of 50 per cent.

Despite this ten point lead for devo-scepticism, Scully is quoted as saying: “There is a divide now between those who are reasonably happy with things as they are, and the somewhat larger group who would like things to go somewhat further, but not as far as independence”.

Yet that phrasing disguises the fact that, in a poll described on Cardiff University’s site as reverting to type after an outlier, those in Wales opposed to more powers rather outpolled those in favour.

Lord Molyneaux, former UUP leader, passes away

James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party from 1979 to 1995, passed away this week aged 94.

The Belfast Telegraph reports on the tributes which have flooded in from political colleagues who worked with him during the height of the IRA terror campaign in the 1980s. Sir John Major called him “one of the unsung heroes of the peace process”.

A quiet and considered leader who liked to quote Harold Macmillan, Molyneaux was a committed unionist who, according to the Financial Times, made the safety of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom his highest political priority.

During the Second World War he was one of the very first soldiers to enter the liberated Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

Republic of Ireland legalises drugs by accident (and almost bans straight marriage)

This column seldom touches on the Republic, but there are two news items which are well worth a read.

First, for one day only a range of drugs including ecstasy and crystal meth are apparently legal in Ireland after the 1977 Misuse of Drugs Act was struck down as unconstitutional.

If that wasn’t enough, the Government has had to reword the Irish-language version of the question for a same-sex marriage referendum after experts pointed out that the original wording risked making heterosexual marriage unconstitutional.