Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers visited to New York and Washington, D.C. at the end of July to meet with senior government officials and outline her opposition to the current political stalemate in the north over welfare cuts.
She told the Irish Voice that Sinn Fein’s failure to implement the Stormont House Agreement is what has caused the current deadlock, but Sinn Fein counters that the welfare cuts and the austerity measures sought by the British government are to blame.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness took a separate trip to Washington and New York in the same week to put Sinn Fein’s counter case to Obama administration officials that Northern Ireland is emerging from conflict, which makes it a special case within the U.K. deserving of greater government assistance.
“I agree that Northern Ireland is a special case and I would emphasize that the U.K. government acknowledges that in its financial settlement for Northern Ireland, and in the additional financial package that we put on the table as part of the Stormont House Agreement,” Villiers said.
“The regular grant to Northern Ireland from Westminster is in normal times around 23 percent higher than the U.K. average in terms of public spending per head. In addition you have the £2 billion form the Stormont House package, with another £100 million from the economic pact we signed a couple of years ago, including £200 million for security funding. There is no doubt that public funding is higher in Northern Ireland than it is anywhere else in the United Kingdom.”
But McGuinness counters that the cost to the U.K. for military policing was billions more than the current time, and the U.K. government paid it. Why, he asks, must they insist on welfare cuts and austerity now when both are a fraction of the cost of former security expenses during the Troubles?
“Martin and I have had this conversation many times,” replied Villiers. “We believe that the Stormont House Agreement was a good deal for Northern Ireland. In many ways Northern Ireland has been insulated in as many ways as we can from the difficult decisions we’ve needed to take to live within our means as a country.”
Asking Northern Ireland’s party leaders to stick with what they agreed to is not unreasonable, Villiers added. “We’re not asking for decisions that are nearly as harsh as those taken in other parts of Europe by other governments.”
Villiers acknowledges that differences over welfare cuts represents a more traditional political dispute and she welcomes the development, but she says the radical left approach taken by Sinn Fein and anti-austerity parties in the longer term is damaging to the people they are trying to protect.
“The situation is very serious. I think there is a choice for Sinn Fein here,” she said.
“What is more important? Is it an ideological focus on anti-austerity measures or is it pragmatism and maintaining the institutions that they’ve spent 20 years building up? They are putting them in jeopardy at present because you can’t function effectively as an administration unless you can run a workable budget.”