As the first day of a two-day welfare reform debate ended last night, Sinn Fein faced accusations from parties north and south of the border that it has done a U-turn on the issue.
During the first part of a mammoth Assembly debate on one of the most significant pieces of legislation to come before MLAs, Sinn Fein faced repeated accusations that it has brought Stormont to the brink of collapse only to finally agree to welfare reforms extending to Northern Ireland.
But as Sinn Fein faced fierce criticism from the SDLP, Green Party and even Fianna Fail, it was striking that the DUP — which is eager to keep Sinn Fein on board to get the bill through the Assembly — restrained itself from making life difficult for Sinn Fein.
The debate – which went ahead despite a highly unusual mass DUP veto of amendments to the bill which rendered much of the debate largely meaningless — ended at 10pm but will resume again this morning.
Yesterday it became clear that Sinn fein has agreed to every aspect of welfare reform extending to Northern Ireland — but with many of those who lose out under the changes having the difference topped up from Stormont’s already falling budget.
However, it is far from clear what will happen in future years, as those welfare claims will have to compete with other priorities such as health and education for funds.
Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins claimed that the issue showed Sinn Fein to be “hypocritical”.
He said: “Today’s bill shows up the sheer hypocrisy of Sinn Fein on both sides of the border. The cuts to welfare in Northern Ireland flies in the face of what they have been calling for in the Republic. They haven’t even put forward amendments to the welfare bill before the Assembly.”
Green Party leader Steven Agnew was particularly critical of Sinn Fein’s changed stance on welfare reform.
He asked whether “on the day that Sinn Féin signed up to the Tory welfare cuts, it launched the Irish language consultation”.
And UUP MLA Roy Beggs suggested that there was a DUP-Sinn Fein “tag team”, with Sinn Fein quietly happy that the DUP has blocked many Welfare Reform Bill amendments.
Sinn Fein has made the unambiguous claim that no one will lose money as a result of the changes which are being made.
Last week Sinn Fein’s northern chairman, Bobby Storey, said that “there will be no reduction in benefits under the control of the Assembly” and said that Stormont’s “protections” for those on benefits “will apply to new as well as existing claimants”.
Mr Beggs, who tabled several amendments blocked by the DUP, said: “The UUP has proposed a series of practical and cost-effective amendments which seek to make the Welfare Reform Bill fairer for those who are vulnerable in our society and to improve the effectiveness of the roll-out of the new benefits.
“For instance, we have proposed putting in place flexibility so that in cases where a member of a family fails to sign up to a claimant commitment, the Department can look at the case and may prevent the rest of the family from being automatically penalised by having their claims withheld.”
However, Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey said: “I have listened to cheap political points and nonsense spoken by members who, I honestly believe, if they had the convictions they claim to have, would walk out of the Executive and the Assembly and would tell the people of Northern Ireland: ‘I do not want to be part of this dysfunctional process, this Assembly cannot make a decision’.”
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