West Tyrone Sinn Féin -- Building an Ireland of Equals

SDLP are a party in meltdown- Pat Doherty MP

Published: 11 February, 2015

This week's debate in the Assembly on Welfare Reform was the most disingenuous display by the SDLP and UUP I have seen of self-serving party politicking from two parties putting their electoral ambitions over the needs of the people they claim to represent. Both are members of the Executive. Both negotiated and signed up to the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). Their leaders gave commitments to implement the agreement and bring proposed amendments to the party leaders' implementation group. Both parties reneged on those commitments to engage in meaningless posturing aimed at securing headlines. Their hypocrisy is astounding!

On December 17, during the Stormont House negotiations, both parties buckled and voted for a welfare package falling well short of that achieved by Sinn Féin and the DUP on December 19 which is presently going through the Assembly. The deficient deal, which the SDLP and UUP signed up for, did not include the supplementary payment fund - worth £125m over six years - did not include protection for children with disabilities or adults with severe disabilities or the long-term sick. They did however agree a two-year loss of benefit sanction.

In contrast, Sinn Féin stood firm and achieved protections unique to the north of Ireland. £565million will remain in the pockets of the most vulnerable in our society over the next six years. Therefore, for the SDLP to table amendments on the pretence they are defending the most vulnerable would be laughable if it was not so serious.

What we witnessed in the Assembly this week was not a genuine attempt to improve legislation but party political stunts and posturing. Why else did the SDLP leader ignore Martin McGuinness's repeated requests over a period of three weeks for discussions on possible amendments? Why did the SDLP not raise these amendments at the Executive - or at the weekly implementation group meetings in the weeks since Stormont House? Why did the SDLP after almost six weeks of refusing to come forward with proposals, send amendments at the very last minute, just ten hours before the dead-line? They did this because they were never interested in agreed amendments, only in scoring political points. In order to achieve that, they were prepared, not only to renege on agreements and commitments, but to jeopardise the entire agreement itself.

It is my view that the SDLP have gone down this road because their leader has lost control to such an extent that we are now dealing with two parties within the SDLP. One party negotiated and signed up to the implementation of the SHA. The other broke those commitments and dishonoured their leader's commitment that any amendments would be pursued and agreed through the party leaders group.

The SDLP dissidents are clearly now in charge and are prepared to risk the collapse of the Agreement - and thereby the power-sharing institutions - for the sake of party political grandstanding. If Sinn Fein had taken the approach advocated by the SDLP there would be no agreement and no power sharing institutions. What we would have today is Direct Rule by the Tories and all that would mean in terms of austerity, welfare cuts and water charges. Is this what the SDLP or its electorate want - a return to British Direct Rule? Why have they not made public the four Party Agreement that they accepted at Stormont Castle on December 17th. Because they would have to admit to the electorate that they signed up to a welfare package that was far short of the one going through the Assembly!

It is clear on this issue the SDLP are driven by one over-riding priority, not the protection of the vulnerable in our society, but the protection of their own narrow party political interests. Likewise on the NCA, in their rush to grab headlines the SDLP once more jumped too soon. As with Patten they have sold the people short. But as with Patten Sinn Féin will continue to work for full accountability of all policing functions in the North of Ireland - whether that be the PSNI or the NCA. The SDLP rolled over - lost their nerve and left the British Home Secretary with the powers to undermine the accountability mechanisms achieved by Sinn Féin in the negotiation. They left the British Home Secretary retaining the power to extend the remit of the NCA to cover anything that s/he considers in the interests of British National Security. S/he does not even have to consult the Assembly or even Westminster if s/he decides to do so. Once more Sinn Féin is left to clean up the mess created by SDLP ineptitude in negotiations. The people can and will make their own judgement on these issues in the time ahead. I look forward to that.