Theresa May dropped into Belfast on November 27 – part of her stumble across the land trying to sell her mish-mash “solution” to Brexit. At Queen’s University she spoke with groups from “civic society” and, later, with representatives of local parties, including Sinn Féin.
Nothing new in that. Back in 2003, as the US and Britain were limbering up for the invasion of Iraq, George Bush held a “war summit” with Tony Blair at Hillsborough Castle. The putrid pair took time off to meet party delegations in the Castle’s sumptuous ballroom, including a Sinn Féin delegation headed by Gerry Adams.
Outside the Castle, some 3,000 people, including a Sinn Féin contingent, gathered to protest against Bush’s presence. Asked how they reconciled being in with the in-crowd and simultaneously out in the cold shouting defiance, Sinn Féin members explained that there was no contradiction – their leaders had told Bush to his face the same things which were being shouted outside.
They had done nothing of the sort. The only journalist present in the Castle was Peter Stothard, editor of the Times. He wrote later of the local politicians arranging themselves in horse-shoe formation as Bush passed along, making brief small talk with each in turn. The Sinn Féiners had behaved as properly and politely as any of the others.
The same pattern emerges in relation to “welfare reform.”
Welfare is a devolved matter. Only if there were direct rule could Westminster impose welfare changes on the North. But Sinn Féin joined with the DUP and Alliance to consent to the implementation of the Tory’s Welfare Reform through Stormont. Despite this, some Sinn Féin members seem unable to go down to the shops for a message these days without shouting “Fight the Tory Cuts!” to startled passers-by.
To spell it out – the motion at Stormont which paved the way for the Tory cuts was moved by DUP Minister Mervyn Storey on November 15 2015. It read:
“That this Assembly consents to the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill 2015 being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament; approves the welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster; the draft Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015; and the Executive’s proposals to enhance payments flowing from the agreement announced on 17 November 2015.” (The Fresh Start agreement.
Every Sinn Féin MLA trooped through the lobby with their DUP comrades to pass this motion – 70 votes to 22. Among those taking a more progressive stand were Jim Alister of the TUV, Robin Swann, now Ulster Unionist leader, independent Unionist Claire Sugden, and all of the SDLP MLAs.
If Sinn Féin hadn’t waved the Tory measures through, the PIP scheme now causing consternation across the working class couldn’t have been introduced here. The new Universal Credit whose grim consequences are there for all to see across the water couldn’t have been introduced here.
The Sinn Féin excuse at the time was that they had been pushed and pressurised by Westminster telling them that the only way to save the Assembly was to put the boot into the least well-off – the equivalent of the small boy telling his mum that, “It wasn’t my fault. Big boys make me do it.” Instead of standing by the working class, they buckled.
They’ll buckle over Brexit, too, if it suits their political ambitions. They’re already welcoming May’s mish-mash deal.