It's all in the game

"Don't Lose Your Marbles" might appear a politically incorrect title for a campaign highlighting mental health.

But local charity Action Mental Health believes it works as a shock tactic - it also accurately describes a game they have been playing at various venues around Northern Ireland, in which players use a broom to try to steer a collection of marbles around an obstacle course.

MLAs from all parties took enthusiastically to the game when it was staged in the Stormont Great Hall.

But elsewhere in Parliament Buildings the politicians were accusing each other of playing political games with the vital matter of wide-ranging reforms to the welfare system.

The reforms are the brain child of the coalition government in Westminster which portrays them as both a simplification of an over-complex system and an incentive to encourage people to escape the benefits trap.

Critics claim the agenda behind the changes is to tackle the UK deficit by cutting the resources available to the most vulnerable.

Enthusiastic supporters of the welfare changes are thin on the ground at Stormont.

But the so-called parity principle means the Executive has little choice but to follow the Westminster model.

Put simply, if Northern Ireland decided to pay local welfare claimants more generous benefits than their counterparts in England, the Treasury would deduct a corresponding amount from the Stormont block grant.

Last week, Sinn Féin made it clear it wanted to delay the bill applying the changes to Northern Ireland, to buy more time to seek concessions from London. Sinn Féin is sometimes accused of opposing cuts south of the border and implementing them in the north.

So it was significant that the party's team in the Dail congratulated their counterparts in the Assembly on their stand.


Both Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland expressed anger at what they viewed as an attempt to shift the blame for the reforms in the DUP's direction.

The DUP politicians accused Sinn Féin of endangering payments from the Social Fund to those in need and the jobs of 1500 Northern Ireland based civil servants who administer the UK welfare system.

They went on to charge republicans with putting up a "sham fight", pointing out that Sinn Féin could have used Stormont's cross community voting system to veto the bill.

Sinn Féin responded that they didn't want to kill the bill outright, but to seek maximum flexibility. With Minister McCausland due to meet his opposite number in London next week, they argued that a strong message from the Assembly would strengthen Stormont's bargaining hand.

Allegations of gamesmanship go wider than Sinn Fein. The Green MLA Steven Agnew accused the DUP of scaremongering.

Earlier, the DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots warned lives could be lost if a delay in the welfare reforms led to a £100m cut in his budget. This might appear logical, but it has never been an argument used by ministers around, say, the devolution of Corporation Tax, which would also involve a multi-million pound cut to the Stormont grant.

Games of another kind were also being played between Sinn Féin and the SDLP, as each party tried to demonstrate they were stronger opponents of the Westminster inspired reforms.

The SDLP indicated they were prepared to table a petition to stop the Welfare bill, but couldn't persuade Sinn Féin to sign it. Sinn Féin MLAs retorted that when SDLP ministers were in charge of the Social Development department they frequently defended the welfare parity principle.

With the Ulster Unionists not prepared to support a delay, the votes stacked up on the DUP's side. As the clock struck midnight, Sinn Féin's amendment was voted down and the bill moved on to its Committee stage.

It seems likely that Northern Ireland ministers might yet be able to negotiate operational flexibility, under which, for example, benefits could be paid fortnightly rather than monthly.

Other possible changes could involve benefits being paid direct to landlords or to primary carers rather than the head of a household. These areas have been well documented since before December last year when I interviewed Nelson McCausland on the subject.

Some officials have suggested to me that flexibility in these areas has already been conceded by London. Whether that is really the case should become clearer after next week's meeting between Nelson McCausland and London Welfare Reform Minister Lord David Freud.