The north's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is visiting the US this week to brief representatives of Vice President Joe Biden's office and senior officials at the State Department about the ongoing Stormont crisis.
McGuinness, who traveled to Washington and New York on Monday, told IrishCentral that he would be asking the US for help to persuade the UK government to break the deadlock with the UK's ruling Conservative party over proposed welfare cuts in the north.
“The United States of America has played a crucial role and has been a very strong ally in the peace process,” McGuinness told IrishCentral. “I thought it was very important to come to meet with Irish America and all those who have played such a powerful role over the last twenty years. It shows that the administration still takes a very strong interest in what we're doing.”
The present difficulties at the Executive are not just about welfare, McGuinness explained. “We have a situation were clearly the Conservatives have signaled their desire to take 37 billion out of the UK economy over the course of the next number of years. Our percentage of that in the north will be so damaging for our attempts to produce the results that a society emerging from conflict deserves.
“The cuts that we experience will be on welfare, it will be against people on low paid jobs who are being denied working tax credits, child tax credits, effectively pushing the working poor into further poverty.”
McGuinness says the Conservatives have made it clear they are going to take in the region of four or five hundred million out of departments in the north, which includes the department of education and the department of health, which he says will damage the ability of the Executive to deliver for the north's society.
“If the decisions that are being taken by the Conservatives inhibit our ability to deliver on jobs and services because of lack of funds, then effectively our ability to deliver for a society emerging from conflict is damaged very badly,” McGuinness said.
McGuinness met with British Prime Minister David Cameron last week for what he called “a very forthright and useful meeting.”
“I said to Cameron that if you look at the north of Ireland over the 25 years of the conflict, the British government poured in billions to try to succeed with a military agenda, to try and bring conflict to an end. They poured billions in. The problems we are facing now require only a drop in the ocean to what they poured in in the past.”
For once the difficulties facing the Executive do not revolve around constitutional issues, or unionism or nationalism, or republicanism or loyalism, says McGuinness. “These difficulties affect us all and as a result of the policies being pursued by this conservative government. I just don't see how you can make a credible case for the sort of cuts they are proposing and how we need as an Executive to deliver for a society emerging from conflict. Our argument is that the north is a special case.”
The growing instability could give extremist groups an opening, McGuinness warned, in a plea calculated to concentrate the minds of all sides.
“We still have to contend with small unrepresentative groups that want to drag us back into the past. Three weeks ago we had an attempt to kill two police officers outside Derry city by so-called dissident republicans. In Lurgan, County Armagh last week we had a further attempt to kill police officers. We had a riot in North Belfast where twenty five people were arrested and four police officers were hurt by extreme loyalists. If we end up with the collapse of the political institutions, or if they are unable to deliver, then that leaves a political vacuum that can be capitalized on by extreme elements on all sides.”
Cameron was left in no doubt about the seriousness of Sinn Fein's opposition to the proposed welfare cuts, McGuinness added.
“We made it clear to him that in our opinion the political institutions in the north that we have worked so hard to build up are effectively hanging by a thread because of the pressure their economic strategy is placing on the Executive. My legacy isn’t going to be that I was a doormat for the conservatives, who are effectively punishing some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged people in our society.”
McGuinness added that there was a big role for the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny to play in the current impasse. “We have been very critical about the way David Cameron and Enda Kenny have stood back from this situation and not recognized the challenges the Executive faces,” he said.
Speaking about the recent revelations on alleged secret funds given to Northern Irish politicians to facilitate the sale of NAMA bankruptcy properties to a US consortium, McGuinness says he supports the ongoing police investigation.
“What I expect is a very thorough investigation, which is presently ongoing. When an elected representative stands up and makes the allegations that were recently made in the Dublin parliament then they have to be investigated. I think it does merit a very serious investigation. If you have a situation where it's being claimed a politician will benefit from an action that casts aspersions on all politicians in the north.”
Asked about for Sinn Fein's chances in the anticipated 2016 general election in the republic he said: “Opinion polls are showing a very steady performance by Sinn Fein in the south. Last time we got less than ten percent of the vote. I stood in the presidential election and we hit the fourteen percent barrier. Since that we have steadily increased our percentages in the polls, although I am always skeptical about opinion polls.
"At the same time they are showing a fairly steady performance by the party. The polls are also showing the weakness of the Labour Party in the south. It's very difficult to see how any government could be put together of any variety we have at the moment. Labour are in a very weak position, Sinn Fein are in a very strong position. We fight all elections so that we will be in a position to form a government, that's the basis we'll move forward on in 2016 in the south.
“Depending on the will of the electorate Sinn Fein will be in a position to form a government or you could have a situation where Fine Gael and Fianna Fail could be compelled to go into a coalition government with each other, something that would have previously been thought unimaginable. If people want a change of government in the south, and I think there is an appetite for that now, people are going to have to seriously think about voting for Sinn Fein in even bigger numbers.”
Asked about the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime ally, to become leader of the Labour Party in the UK McGuinness replied: “I met him last week in London and I'm delighted he's going to be in Belfast this week at the Belfast Feile. I think his arrival brings a huge focus to the Labour contest and it's amazing to watch how he has become very popular. The support he's getting is from voters who are anti-austerity, or from people who were against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and don't want billions spent on Trident nuclear deterrents.
“Jeremy's a very capable, focused politicians, someone who is ideologically a world apart from David Cameron. Some of the experts are predicting that he may not win it, but so far he's doing really well.”