Dr John Coulter is an evangelical Christian and a life-long member of the Ulster Unionist Party. This is an extended version of his monthly Ireland Eye column in Tribune magazine in which he explores how the austerity crisis can be faced, while at the same time saving Stormont.
First the South had to endure the pain of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy and the humiliation of the multi-million euro bailout; now the North is dealing with its so-called ‘fantasy budget’, bouncing cheques for funding – and the prospect of Stormont folding once again.
Austerity cuts will bite deep on both sides of the Irish border, but the Northern crisis over welfare reform has been caused by Sinn Fein riding two economic horses – both now running in opposite directions.
The one-time apologist for Provisional IRA terror has now realised it cannot bring about Irish unity with a bombing and shooting campaign in Northern Ireland.
So Sinn Fein has changed direction and is now focusing on becoming a minority government partner in the Republic after next year’s expected Dail General Election.
It has remodelled itself as the voice of anti-austerity. But as a government partner in Stormont with the DUP, it was in danger of having to implement welfare reform sparking the query – will the real Sinn Fein please stand up?
Sinn Fein has tried to delay the implementation of welfare reform in Northern Ireland long enough so that Southern voters can elect the party into power in Leinster House.
But Sinn Fein has taken its eye off the ball in Northern Ireland to the extent that it has been backed into a dead-end political cul-de-sac. The solution is brutally simple. The Unionists will have to compromise to get Sinn Fein out of this corner, otherwise Stormont will collapse.
The British Government wants the Stormont House Agreement implemented. The two clubs to be juggled by Northern politicians are how to implement these stinging welfare reform cuts, while at the same time preserving the Assembly.
If the Assembly parties refuse to implement welfare reform, Westminster will step in and do the job for them – but the cuts will be considerably deeper than anything which the DUP and Sinn Fein have to impose.
Another solution is to let Stormont fold, and transfer many of its powers either to the newly-formed 11 super councils, which came into existence formally in April, and even divest additional powers to the North-South bodies and British-Irish institutions.
This sounds like Home Rule by the back door, or Joint Authority of Northern Ireland by Dublin and London. With the loyalist marching season about to reach its peak in less than a month, it is in everyone’s interest to keep the militant loyalist genie in the bottle for the next few months.
The harsh political reality is that the new super councils are still bedding in, so it would be an act of sheer stupidity to dump even more powers on them.
And with Sinn Fein – unlike the Scottish and Welsh nationalists – still refusing to take their Commons seats, the imposition of Direct Rule from Westminster suits the Unionists, especially if Cameron needs a few extra votes if his Right-wing backbenchers start to rattle cages over the European Union.
The compromise to get out of this latest politically tasteless Irish stew is a watered down version of the Stormont House Agreement. Welfare reform can be implemented in tiny steps by the Northern Ireland parties, rather than by giant leaps from Westminster.
The DUP still gets to keep its beloved Assembly and Sinn Fein quietly brushes cuts under the green carpet so that it remains the champion against austerity in the Republic, yet imposing the same measures in the North.
Republicans will then have to juggle two versions of the same party. A hard Left party in the South, and a softly, softly Right-wing movement in the North.
Could this ‘dual image’ tactic put an irreparable strain on the Sinn Fein leadership piloted firmly by party president Gerry Adams in the Dail and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont?
Republicans will be hoping the centenary celebrations for the doomed Easter Rising next year can paper over any ideological cracks in Sinn Fein, which lead to the splits in the movement in the early 1970s between Official Sinn Fein and Provisional Sinn Fein, and in 1986 between Provisional Sinn Fein and Republican Sinn Fein.
As yet, the dissident republican movement has limited itself to a stop/start terror campaign rather than the IRA’s ‘long war’ vision. Politically, dissident republicans are leaps and bounds behind Sinn Fein.
Perhaps with Sinn Fein riding two horses, it’s time for a new moderate nationalist party to emerge to replace the split-ridden SDLP?