The Northern Ireland Assembly has brought itself to the brink of suspension over welfare reform, again.
This is the latest nadir of a long-running dispute between the Stormont and Westminster about implementing Iain Duncan Smith’s reform agenda, which I’ve covered in this column on a rolling basis for at least eighteen months.
The essence of the problem is that (unlike in Great Britain), welfare is technically devolved to Belfast. However the NI Executive is expected to maintain parity with the mainland, on pain of Treasury fines worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Sinn Fein (a Marxist party) had taken a stand and refused to ratify the legislation, leading Number 11 to levy heavy fines on the Executive’s budget and necessitating swingeing cuts in the province.
The decision by the nationalist parties to reject reform leaves the NI Executive facing a fresh funding hole worth £600m, according to the Belfast Telegraph. This risks a civil servant being appointed to take control of spending later in the summer, which in turn risks the collapse of the Assembly if one of the parties walks out.
That Sinn Fein have elected to take this brinksmanship approach after the general election is especially ominous. Beforehand, it was presumed by many that they were stalling in hope of seeing a Labour-led government returned that lacked the stomach either for welfare reform or a showdown in Belfast.
The Belfast Telegraph then goes on to outline the various ways forward from here, none of which look good.
It would be an act of unforgiveable weakness – not to mention being simply unfair – for David Cameron to fold in the face of Sinn Fein’s ‘resistance’ tactics and agree to the UK subsidising a more generous welfare system for Ulster.
It would also encourage such activity on the mainland – indeed Martin McGuinness is already calling for separatists in Wales and Northern Ireland to join him in an attempt to fight the Government on a reserved issue. The precedent of retreat would be a dire and long-regretted one.
Yet the Government has shown no willing to step in and directly implement welfare reform over the head of the Executive (which the DUP want but would probably prompt a Sinn Fein walk out and the collapse of Stormont).
Nor, despite the profoundly illogical nature of the current arrangements, is there any sign that Parliament will simply reclaim de jure responsibility for welfare in Northern Ireland to match the de facto power it already exercises.
Theresa Villiers could hold yet another round of talks, but there seems little point. If the Government isn’t offering extra money it’s hard to see why Sinn Fein would re-commit to a deal they’ve already made and broken.
In the province itself some commentators are actually calling for the temporary suspension of the Assembly, which would grant both a period of effective government from London and an opportunity to reform Stormont’s dysfunctional institutions.
Unless one side or the other backs down, the Northern Irish administration is going to keep racking up fines and be forced to continue making spending cuts, and it has proven itself time and again incapable of governing when things are difficult.
Collapse really seems to be on the cards. The Government should make sure it has a proper plan for if that happens: holding endless rounds of talks whilst waiting for deep-seated, systemic problems to resolve themselves is not going to work.
Welsh Assembly in revolt over pay rise
In Wales, as now in London, the pay of elected representatives in the Assembly is determined by an independent, apolitical body designed to free legislators from the political nightmare that is voting on their own pay.
Yet when said body proposes a pay rise (and here again Cardiff follows the London lead), outrage ensues.
In this instance, the Guardian reports that AMs are preparing to boycott a proposed 17 per cent pay increase. The plans would reportedly cost taxpayers an additional £700m a year, and would put the salary of Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, on a par with that of the Prime Minister.
The remuneration board claims the rise is necessary, both to match the increased responsibilities AMs face with further devolution and to lower the barrier to entry for elected office.
Carmichael at risk of recall, but Sturgeon did say she wanted Cameron to win
In the run up to the general election, a civil service memo leaked to the press alleged that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, had told the French ambassador that she wanted the Conservatives to win the election.
Much hue and cry ensued, and the SNP demanded – and got – a Whitehall enquiry into the leak. The results of that enquiry are now known, and are twofold.
The first is that Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland and the last Liberal Democrat MP in Scotland, has admitted to authorising the leak and then to lying about it to the press. As a result, he risks becoming the first victim of his party’s own recall proposals.
His party – understandably horrified at the prospect of losing one of their last redoubts and one eighth of their Westminster strength – are trying to tough it out, although not everyone is pleased with that approach.
The second finding was that the civil servant’s account of the conversation – wherein Sturgeon claimed that Miliband wasn’t “prime minister material”, was accurate. There is no reason to suspect that the First Minister didn’t say what the leaked memo claimed she said.
SNP supporters on Twitter appear intent on muddying the waters here: many are demanding apologies from all who propagated “the lie” whilst overlooking the fact that said lie was Carmichael’s denial, rather than the actual charge against their leader.
Nothing seems to stick to the Nationalists at the moment, but this is further evidence that the SNP are not nearly so progressive as their newly-adopted postures suggest. This may come back to bite them should they ever disappoint their new legion of hard-left supporters.