Sinn Fein and the SDLP have clashed during a reconvened meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council on Monday, August 5 at Enniskillen Townhall.

At the meeting, Sinn Féin Councillor Stephen McCann proposed a motion that the Council welcomes a range of reports recently published which highlight the “serious risk of greater hardship for many within our community,” if welfare mitigations do not continue beyond March 2020.

The reports Councillor McCann referred to were Welfare Reform: Mitigations on a Cliff Edge, Cliff Edge Coalition NI and NIAO: Welfare Reforms in NI.

In addition, Councillor McCann called on all members of the Council to support the need to continue Welfare Mitigations beyond March 2020 and called on the Department of Communities (DoC) to take all steps necessary to ensure the mitigation scheme will continue to “help the most vulnerable in our community”.

Giving background to his proposed motion, Councillor McCann stated: “In November 2015, Sinn Féin sought and secured an agreement with other political parties in the Stormont Assembly for a mitigation package from the executive funds to offset some of the worst aspects of the British Government’s imposition of welfare cuts.”

Commenting on the reports, Councillor McCann added: “They have demonstrated just how beneficial the mitigation package has been in terms of protecting the most vulnerable in this society.”

Thanking Sinn Féin for putting forward the motion, Independent Councillor Josephine Deehan added: “The whole welfare reform agenda is one that has caused great stress amongst those who are most vulnerable in our society. The efforts of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive to mitigate against the worst excesses of these cutbacks has certainly been appreciated by many of our constituents.”

Stating that “almost 200 households are already paying bedroom tax despite assurances from other parties that no-one would be affected,” SDLP Councillor John Coyle continued: “An inclusive power-sharing executive is the best way to ensure the extension of the mitigation package that will protect the most vulnerable. Parties should come together in the current talks process to ensure that strategic political leadership is provided to the Department of Communities.”

Following his comments, Councillor Coyle proposed an amendment to the motion adding that the Council “acknowledges that, in spite of assurances to the contrary, vulnerable claimants are being forced to pay the bedroom tax, calls on all parties to work together to establish an inclusive power-sharing executive that can continue the welfare mitigation package beyond March 2020 and calls on the Department of Communities to take all steps necessary to ensure the mitigation scheme will continue to support the most vulnerable in our community.”

After deliberating with fellow Sinn Féin councillors, Councillor McCann was “happy” to accept the amendment to the motion with a few exceptions. He asked to remove “in spite of assurances to the contrary,” and that “we call on all members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to support the need to continue welfare mitigations” be retained in the motion.

Requesting to “sum up” the motion, Councillor McCann said: “It is great that the motion has been supported by all members of the council with that amendment.”

Highlighting that Sinn Féin “stood firmly against” the Tory government’s “onslaught” against the welfare state, Councillor McCann added: “The Fresh Start agreement was signed in November 2017 and this secured a mitigation package of £585 million to support and protect the most vulnerable in our society. Our citizens got unique protections in this agreement and in this budget and it is noted that the SDLP refused to support this. Despite fierce opposition, it was us in the Sinn Féin who secured the £585 million to reduce the impact of these devastating cuts and to date we have continued to oppose Tory welfare cuts.”

At the time, it was unclear if the overall motion had been passed, or if only the amendment had been approved. However, when some councillors wanted to continue speaking on the matter, there was uproar in the chamber and Chair of the Council Siobhán Currie confirmed that the motion had been passed and that they had to move on without any other comment.

SDLP Councillor Adam Gannon asked if he could give a “quick point of clarity” on Councillor McCann’s summary in which he had stated that the SDLP refused to support the Sinn Féin deal.

Noting again that the motion had already been passed and they had “moved on,” Councillor Currie refused to let Councillor Gannon speak any further on the matter.

Speaking to The Impartial Reporter following the Council meeting, Councillor Gannon said: “I was astonished by the absolute hypocrisy from Sinn Féin in bringing forward a motion around welfare to our council, considering they, along with the DUP and Alliance, brought the devastating Bedroom Tax, PIP, and Universal Credit to our peoples’ doors.”

He continued: “They knowingly sold out the most vulnerable in our society to a Tory party in London who appear to have a fetish for hurting the most vulnerable.”

He added: “Facts are facts though and they can easily be exposed by checking their voting record. All of their MLAs willingly supported welfare cuts here including all of their Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLAs callously voted for it. They also had the nerve to say they opposed austerity yet if their MPs went to work they could bring down the Tory Government and stop the Brexit and austerity agenda tomorrow. If they actually gave two dams about the people of the North and of Fermanagh they would be doing their jobs in the Assembly and at Westminster but they choose not to.”

Responding to Councillor Gannon’s remarks, Councillor McCann told The Impartial Reporter: “Sinn Féin has always opposed Tory austerity when it arose.”

He continued: “Whenever that welfare mitigations package, on the back of the Fresh Start agreement which was heavily negotiated by ourselves, whenever it came up for a vote, the SDLP voted against that, so the package that we secured is unique to the North here, there’s nowhere else getting the same deal and the SDLP couldn’t vote for that.”

He concluded: “Sinn Féin are completely against welfare cuts, welfare austerity and we’ve opposed Tory austerity as and when it arises and we’ll continue to do so.”