“We have made significant progress”
We had a marathon session in the Assembly this week to offset the worst effects of the Welfare Legislation which has been imposed upon our people by the Tory-led Coalition in London, despite its devastating effects on the less well-off.
Significant measures were taken, under the leadership of Sinn Féin and the DUP, to mitigate the effects of welfare changes on the vulnerable — most notably a £565m fund to compensate those who incur benefit deducations, thus ensuring no-one who receives benefits under the control of the Executive loses out. Séamus McAleavey of the NI Council for Voluntary Action, a longstanding opponent of Welfare Cuts, gave the most realistic assessment of the deal.
“We have made significant progress today,” he told UTV.
“The flexibilities that have been gained for Northern Ireland and the welfare reform that we will have here, as opposed to what has happened in GB, is very, very different. And voluntary organisations in England would tell us that we have done very well and that we will be able to protect our people, particularly around this whole issue of Bedroom Tax where people had real fear that they might have to move, lose their houses and have real problems.”
He was asked if he thoughts politicians had “done enough to protect the people against the worst excesses of welfare reform”. “We certainly think so,” he replied.
While that progress is a step forward in itself, equally important to the people I meet out on the streets is that the DUP and Sinn Féin are honouring the letter and the spirit of the Stormont House Agreement which was signed before Christmas and that we may be, in fact, witnessing a fresh start in the peace process.
I also sense a revived determination across political divides to ensure the peace dividend reaches into those areas which still need substantial investment — not least Derry City which I visited on Thursday to meet with economic regeneration bodies. At meetings with the Northwest Science Park, Derry City and Strabane District Council, development agency ILEX and the Chamber of Commerce, I heard an upbeat narrative of a city with enormous potential. Realising that potential to create more, well-paying jobs and to attract enhanced foreign direct investment requires several small steps and one major game changing initiative: the expansion of Magee College from 5,000 to 10,000 students. Universities are at the heart of bustling cities and a bigger Magee College, as a campus of the University of Ulster, could turbo-charge the development of the entire Northwest. I was also active on matters economic closer to home when I presented certificates to students graduating from the Deloitte Data Analytics Academy in South Belfast and relating to transatlantic links when I asked Economy Minister Arlene Foster in the Assembly what progress has been made in relation to more direct flights linking Belfast and North America.
Meanwhile, I was reminded again this week that reaching out to others is a key first step in starting the conversations and creating the relationships which will cement the peace. In that regard, I was privileged on Saturday morning to be asked to go to Monkstown, north of Belfast, to meet the ‘Men’s Breakfast’ group at the Church of the Good Shepherd. It was the first time I had ever visited the sprawling Monkstown estate but the warmth of the welcome and the desire to exchange points of view in an atmosphere of mutual respect, mean that it won’t be the last.
We have made significant progress in many areas, not just in welfare legislation, but much more remains to be done. Déanaimís é. Let’s do it.