I am Sinn Féin spokesperson on welfare and Chairperson of the Social Development Committee in the northern Assembly.
An enemy of the Irish people once described the North as being as British as Finchly. She was forced to eat those words as repeatedly the British Government was shown that nothing could be further from the truth.
When it comes to the Wefare Reform Bill to be introduced by the Tory led Government in London or more aptly the Welfare Cuts Bill, the fact that the North is not some part of England is of primary importance. Let’s face facts, the British Government care little about what happens to the people of this island, North or South unless it affects them.
The North has suffered from decades of under-investment and discrimination and it has a higher cost of living compared to Britain with higher food and fuel prices. The North is not on a level playing field compared to Britain when it comes to the economy.
Unlike the Dail, representatives in the Assembly do not have the freedom to implement their own welfare policies, they are dictated to us from London. We are governed by the principle of parity that dictates that welfare rights be the same in the North as they are in Britain.
Our partners in government in the North believe that we can’t stray from this principle of parity and have to accept whatever is thrown to us from the London table. The welfare changes by the British Government are a cuts agenda that is targeting the least well off in society and those that had nothing to do with bringing the economy into its present dire state.
I would appeal to our partners in the North to join us in rejecting this welfare cuts agenda from London and increase the pressure for more fiscal powers to be given over to local hands.
What our detractors in the Dail and elsewhere should do is join us in arguing for this transfer of economic powers so that the Irish people can implement policies that are suitable to the needs of the Irish people. It is ironic that while we attempt to achieve more economic control of our own affairs in the North, the government in Dublin is exporting that control along with thousands of its own people.
I have engaged extensively with all facets of society about this cuts agenda. From the trade unions to equality and human rights organisations to churches leaders - we have discussed the implications of the cuts agenda.
The benefits system is there to help the most vulnerable in our society especially when the economy is so weak and many people are dependent on government financial support. But there are also many low paid workers who will be hit under the British legislation being imposed here.
The British Government argues that they are trying to simplify the benefits system and not trap people on benefits who should be working. In reality there has been an on-going Tory and tabloid assault on those claiming benefits describing claimants as either, lazy or scroungers. What they are really doing is attacking the poor and most vulnerable at a time when they need the support of a functioning/caring welfare system.
The North’s Social Development Department will soon table a Welfare Reform Bill which will contain the same provisions as that which was passed in Westminster. All the stakeholders and parties have expressed opposition to a range of provisions in the Bill but the majority of parties say that the ‘parity principle’ overrides their objections.
Sinn Féin will continue to argue that there is a better way. That better way is not to pick on the most vulnerable in society and ask them to pay for the greed of the bankers, bond holders and developers.