Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Ard Fheis and Derry; and opposing welfare cuts

Preparing to give Ard Fheis Speech
The streets of Derry were alive with different accents from all parts of the island of Ireland last weekend. There were the Derry wans, the Belfast ones, Kerry, Cork, Belfast and a myriad of other drawls, twangs and brogues. There were even voices from Canada, the USA, Palestine, South Africa, Cuba, and Greece and a few I didn’t recognise. Probably Inisnagaire.

The Ard Fheis was in town, and the people of Derry were delighted to have us. And we were delighted to be there.

All agreed that it was one of the best Ard Fheiseanna ever. The Millennium Forum was packed from early on Friday evening before the Ard Fheis formally opened. There was a buzz about the place which got louder and more enthusiastic as the weekend proceeded.

There was an energy, an excitement and passion around the debates and contributions from young and old alike. The breadth of issues covered was evidence of a political party that was ebullient and confident and determined.

In the midst of it all Martin McGuinness quietly travelled back and forth between Derry and Belfast trying to engage with the DUP around a worsening crisis on welfare protections that had been agreed at Stormont House at Christmas.

By chance Sinn Féin had discovered that the DUP were intent on reneging on a key element of the Stormont House Agreement that specific categories of citizens on welfare now and in the future would be protected.

As we continued with our behind the scenes efforts to talk to the DUP Martin and I made it clear in our respective speeches to the Ard Fheis that the system of welfare protections were a red line issue. That we intended to keep to our commitments and to keep other parties to theirs also.

On Monday the final stage of the Welfare Bill was due to be taken in the Assembly. In the absence of any engagement with the DUP – who were refusing to meet Martin – our new Ard Chomhairle, which had only been elected the previous day, was brought together early on Sunday morning.

We discussed the developing situation. We set it against our strategic goals entering the Stormont House negotiations; one of which was to protect the most vulnerable in our society; the disabled, the sick, the elderly and the young. We knew at the time that this was going to be very difficult given the one and a half billion that the British Tory government had already stripped from the block grant. But we were determined to try.

In the course of 11 days of lengthy negotiations much of the focus was on welfare protections. Financial projections were provided by the DUP controlled Finance Department and Department of Social Development. Eventually an agreement was reached which guaranteed benefit protections for current and future applicants in respect of benefits under the control of the Executive.

Famously George Mitchell, who chaired the Good Friday negotiations, had told us at the end of that process that that was the easy bit over. The hardest bit would be ensuring its implementation.

He was right. That has been our experience with the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. There are key elements of the GFA that have still not been implemented, including a Bill of Rights and the establishment of a Civic Forum. The British and Irish governments have reneged on these.

At Weston Park the British government agreed to establish a full inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. The British government has reneged on this also. And at St. Andrew’s in 2006 there was a commitment by the British to legislate for the Irish language through an Acht na Gaeilge. This has been reneged on also.

Mindful of all of this Martin McGuinness and others in our negotiating team have engaged positively with the Party Leaders’ group to ensure the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. We had no reason to believe that there was any problem.

On the contrary in a speech on January 12th to the Assembly the DUPs Minister for Social Protection Mervyn Storey said; “I think we need to build on the achievements of the Stormont House Agreement… I have given an undertaking to the Assembly in relation to the information that we will bring to the Assembly in terms of the guidance notes and how the Bill (Welfare Rights) will be subject to a paper that, I trust, I will be able to bring to the Executive shortly, so that we can progress the issue in a way that is efficient and effective, and so no one in Northern Ireland is adversely affected as a result …”

So when the incoming Ard Chomhairle met on Sunday morning they were faced with a difficult unfolding scenario. It was clear that the DUP was intent on reneging on the commitments to protect the most vulnerable. They wanted the Welfare Bill to go through the Assembly on Monday afternoon. Subsequently, it appears that it was their intention to provide only partial protection to current recipients of benefit and no protection whatsoever for future claimants.

This is not what was agreed in the Stormont House negotiations and is totally unacceptable.

If the DUP want to strip benefits from children with disabilities, from adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick; or push children further into poverty, then it is for them to explain and justify that.

Until the DUP Minister for DSD produces a scheme which reflects what was agreed at Christmas Sinn Féin will not support the Welfare Bill.

Neither is the effort of the DUP to con the other parties, but especially Sinn Féin, on Welfare protections helpful to the overall project. If you seek in a peace process to fool and dupe your political partners then you subvert the entire basis on which such a process must exist.

Sinn Féin wants to resolve this crisis. But it must be done in terms that are acceptable and which protect the most vulnerable and is in keeping with what was agreed at Christmas. We are very mindful that our opposition to the Welfare Bill could have wider implications for the political institutions and the Stormont House Agreement but there can be no resiling on this issue.

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