This week the Assembly debated the difficult issue of benefits for the most vulnerable in our society. I had hoped, based on the consensus and inclusive approach which characterized the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) and its implementation since, that we would have had a mature and responsible debate dealing directly and effectively with the issues preventing agreement up to this point.
I was deeply disappointed by what I witnessed in the Assembly from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. This was the most disingenuous display of self-serving party politicking from two parties putting their electoral ambitions over the needs of the people they claim to represent.
Both are members of the Executive. Both negotiated and signed up to the SHA. Their respective party leaders – Mike Nesbitt and Alasdair McDonnell – gave commitments to implement the agreement and bring proposed amendments to the party leaders’ implementation group in order to maintain the five party consensus so instrumental in securing agreement in the first place
Both parties reneged on those commitments to engage in meaningless posturing aimed at securing headlines. Their hypocrisy is astounding!
On December 17, during the SHA, both parties buckled and agreed to a welfare package falling well short of that achieved by Sinn Féin and the DUP on December 19 presently going through the Assembly.
The deficient deal, which the SDLP and UUP agreed to, did not include the supplementary payment fund – worth £125m over six years – did not include protection for children with disabilities or adults with severe disabilities or the long-term sick. They did however agree a two year loss of benefit sanction.
In contrast, Sinn Féin stood firm and achieved protections unique to the north of Ireland. £565million will remain in the pockets of the most vulnerable in our society over the next six years.
The UUP is a party which stood with the Conservatives on a Tory manifesto that has delivered vicious cuts to public services and unprecedented assaults on the welfare state.
Therefore, for the SDLP and UUP to table amendments on the pretence they are defending the most vulnerable would be laughable if it was not so serious.
The package we have negotiated, protect the most vulnerable from the UUP and from the welfare cuts which their electoral partners in Britain have attempted to impose on our society.
What we witnessed was not a genuine attempt to improve legislation but party political stunts and posturing. Why else did the SDLP leader ignore my repeated requests over a period of three weeks for discussions on possible amendments? Why did neither the SDLP nor the UUP raise these amendments at the Executive – or at the weekly implementation group meetings in the weeks since Stormont House? Why did the SDLP after almost six weeks of refusing to engage, send proposed amendments at the very last minute, 10 hours before the dead-line?
They did this because they were never interested in agreed amendments, only in scoring political points. In order to achieve that, they were prepared, not only to renege on agreements and commitments, but to jeopardise the entire agreement itself.
It is my view that the SDLP have gone down this road because their leader has lost control to such an extent that we are now dealing with two parties within the SDLP.
One party negotiated and signed up to the implementation of the SHA. The other broke those commitments and dishonoured their leader’s commitment that any amendments would be pursued and agreed through the party leaders group.
The SDLP dissidents are clearly now in charge and are prepared to risk the collapse of the Agreement – and thereby the power-sharing institutions – for the sake of party political grandstanding.
If Sinn Fein had taken the approach advocated by the SDLP and UUP in relation to the Welfare Bill and before that, the budget, there would be no agreement and no power sharing institutions. What we would have today is Direct Rule by the Tories and all that would mean in terms of austerity, welfare cuts and water charges.
Who knows, maybe that’s what the UUP wants? But is it what the SDLP or its electorate want?
The fact is that neither of these parties were honest with the electorate. For all their grandstanding, they didn’t tell the public what they agreed at Stormont Castle on December 17th. They didn’t tell the electorate that they both signed up to a welfare package that was far less than the one going through the Assembly.
It is clear that in their approach to this issue both parties are driven by one over-riding priority, not to protect the vulnerable in our society, but to protect their own narrow party political interests. People can and will make their own judgement on this approach in the time ahead. I look forward to that.