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FactFind: Are Fine Gael's claims about Sinn Féin in a video published on social media accurate?

The video on Twitter and Facebook accused Sinn Féin of being “two-faced and hypocritical”. But were the claims in it correct?

A screenshot the video published by Fine Gael.
A screenshot the video published by Fine Gael.
Image: Fine Gael

AT THE START of this week, Fine Gael published a video on Facebook and Twitter that made a number of direct attacks on Sinn Féin. 

The video contained several claims about alleged differences between party policy on both sides of the border.

In the North, Sinn Féin is one of several parties in the power-sharing Executive restored in January.

Fine Gael accused the party of being “two-faced and hypocritical” in a number of areas. 

The claim

One major claim was that while Sinn Féin was strongly critical of the Irish government’s Pandemic Unemployment Payment and argued for it to be much higher, the system in the North implemented under Sinn Féin and other parties was actually far less generous than what Sinn Féin had suggested for Ireland. 

The Pandemic Unemployment Payment was introduced in March to support those who had been put out of work due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“When the pandemic hit, the Irish government implemented an unprecedented underpinning of people’s salaries and wages with a universal payment of €350 per week for three months,” the narrator in the two-and-a-half minute video says. 

The video then goes on to show a clip of Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty, describing his party’s proposed scheme.

He says: “What we’re proposing is that all workers will benefit. This income support scheme will be paid out to all workers, at up to a rate of €525 per week.”

The narrator in the video then continues: “Despite the fact their own scheme was just £100 per week in the North. And if that wasn’t already an insult, they gave themselves and their staff a pay rise around the same time.

“Even when compared to other countries, Sinn Féin’s scheme is considerably lower, whereas Ireland’s scheme compares favourably.”

This isn’t the first time that Fine Gael has taken aim at supposed hypocrisy by Sinn Féin and Fine Gael is not the only party to have accused Sinn Féin of hypocrisy when it comes to social welfare. In January 2019, the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon made a similar complaint when Sinn Féin claimed on Twitter to have “stood firm” against Tory cuts. 

The Evidence

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, governments around the world were forced to respond rapidly to the fact that drastic restrictions and ‘lockdowns’ would mean that many people were left unemployed. 

In Ireland, the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and the Wage Subsidy Scheme were introduced. In Northern Ireland, a different approach was taken. 

There, anyone who couldn’t work could either be furloughed – where an employer would pay 80% of someone’s regular wages through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, up to £2,500 per month – or if someone was left unemployed they could claim Universal Credit.

Universal Credit is a UK-wide reform of social welfare payments pioneered by the successive Conservative governments over the last decade.

While some important adjustments to the scheme were made in Northern Ireland, it looks largely similar to that found in England, Scotland and Wales.  The system basically took several pre-existing benefits and merged them into one payment.

Nominally, it was meant to simplify the welfare system but it quickly ran into major problems and controversy.  In Northern Ireland, since 6 April, a single claimant aged 25 and over will receive £409.89 (€449) per month under the Universal Credit scheme. This was an increase of £20 on the usual rate, introduced as a response to the pandemic.

Changes were also introduced to make it easier for self-employed people to claim Universal Credit. 

A spokesperson for Fine Gael told TheJournal.ie: “This equates to approximately £93 per week (we then rounded this up to £100 [in the video]).”

They also pointed towards a study by the well-respected think-tank the Institute for Government published in May, which assessed the different ways countries have supported workers during the crisis. 

The study notes that, when it comes to Covid-19-era unemployment benefits, “increases in the UK have been much smaller than other countries”.  The Irish scheme, according to other work by the Economic and Social Research Institute, did a good job of cushioning incomes

Devolution

How much control does Sinn Féin have over social welfare in Northern Ireland and the type and amount of payments made to people?

The party is part of a power-sharing government alongside the DUP, the SDLP, the Alliance and the Ulster Unionist Party.  This government has been in place since power-sharing was restored earlier this year after it collapsed in 2017. 

Sinn Féin MLAs Conor Murphy and Deirdre Hargey (since replaced by Carál Ní Chuilín) occupied key roles at the start of the pandemic, as finance minister and communities minister respectively. 

In theory, social security is devolved to the Northern Irish government. The reality, however, is more complex.  A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Covid-19, Northern Ireland and Universal Credit states: 

Social security holds an unusual place in Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement. Although in principle this is an area of devolved competence, under an arrangement dating from 1926 Northern Ireland has made essentially the same provision for its citizens as Great Britain; this is known as the parity convention.

Like other issues in Northern Ireland, social security is highly politicised – which is one of the main reasons why there was a delay on the roll-out of Universal Credit there. 

Sinn Féin, alongside other parties, pushed for Northern Irish mitigations to Universal Credit and social welfare reforms.  The 2015 ‘Fresh Start’ agreement saw these mitigations accepted, meaning Northern Ireland brought in Universal Credit but avoided some of the measures being introduced by the UK’s Conservative government. 

This saw Sinn Féin and the DUP vote in favour of a motion allowing Westminster to implement changes to the welfare system in the North. The decision at the time attracted criticism from the SDLP, who opposed the motion.

In a submission to a report compiled by the Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees, dated 24 May 2019, four years after the system was first introduced, Sinn Féin was strongly critical of the Universal Credit scheme, calling it “not fit for purpose”.

“The policy and the online system which underpin it, contains numerous faults, complications and delays.”

Leaving aside the question of who backed Universal Credit and the role played by Sinn Féin, it is also highly unlikely that Northern Ireland’s relatively small civil service could have created a bespoke unemployment scheme in the face of a global pandemic given the historic approach to welfare and social security reform in the region. 

While Sinn Féin did accept and vote for welfare reform several years ago, the claim made by Fine Gael is that the party introduced a scheme that was less generous than the one across the border. 

This is not true, given that no new scheme was introduced and Universal Credit was relied upon. 

Alongside the Universal Credit, the Northern Irish Executive also announced a range of localised measures including a cut in business rates and a freeze in domestic rates to support people through the pandemic. 

Fine Gael also has significant experience of the divisive nature of welfare reform in Northern Ireland, having helped to negotiate the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015 when Charlie Flanagan was Minister for Foreign Affairs. 

Measuring success

The claim that success is measured by the generosity of payments alone is also questioned by the Institute of Government study that the Fine Gael spokesperson references. 

While the Irish pandemic unemployment payment was described as more generous than that found in the UK, the authors of the Institute for Government report did not come to any final conclusions over which system was ultimately better in the long term. 

The report states:

Unemployment has increased much more in Canada, Ireland and the US than in Australia and the UK. This is because the governments in Canada, Ireland and the US channeled much more of their labour market support through enhanced unemployment benefits than Australia and the UK did – the latter two countries instead focused support through wage subsidy schemes.

In refusing to come to any final conclusions, the report takes a holistic approach to all the economic measures introduced by several governments and states: “This crisis and governments’ economic responses to it are unprecedented, and it is too soon to know which country’s approach was ‘right’.”

The UK and Australia, for example, focused on supporting existing incomes while also maintaining a link between employers and workers. 

This suggests it is too early to determine which countries produced the best-designed scheme. And while no one would disagree that the generosity of unemployment benefit is important, it is not the sole metric for the success of a scheme. 

Conclusion 

The Fine Gael video is correct in stating that Ireland’s pandemic unemployment payment scheme is more generous than the system in Northern Ireland.

That is clear from looking at the figures: the payment is £409.89 per month in Northern Ireland, which works out at €449 per month, while the Pandemic Unemployment Payment was €350 per week, which is €1,400 in a four-week month.  (The top rate of the PUP was reduced from €350 to €300 earlier this month but the video focused on the €350 figure). 

But in making that claim, it both leaves out crucial context and implies that an entirely new system was introduced in Northern Ireland. It leaves out both the complexities caused by Northern Ireland’s devolved status, the power-sharing arrangement and the political sensitivities that have long been involved in the area of welfare reform. 

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While Sinn Féin is nominally responsible for social welfare payments, in reality the bulk of these decisions are made at Westminster. In this case, the defining features of the economic response to the pandemic were made in the UK Treasury, not in Stormont, where the primary philosophy was to keep people in jobs while allowing the Universal Credit system to operate in parallel.

Note: This claim is a factfind, which means that it does not have a verdict but instead pulls together all the relevant information in order for readers to understand the claim as a whole.

Other claims

In the same video, Fine Gael also made a number of other claims.

The narrator in the video claims that Sinn Féin “gave themselves and their staff a pay rise around the same time”.

In August, a determination about staff salaries in Stormont was published, which would give a pay rise to staff employed by MLAs to bring their salaries into line with other staff employed in the Assembly.

The move means that junior staff will see their salary rise from £18,000 to £23,490, for example. The changes were backed by the DUP, Sinn Féin and the SDLP and were drawn up by the Assembly Commission in Stormont, which is a body made up of all the main parties. Also in August, it was reported by the BBC that MLAs had given themselves the power to increase their expenses. The change would also see MLA allowances for running constituency offices increase by over £2,000.

Sinn Féin were not the only party to back these measures – the other parties in the Assembly did too.

Overall, this claim is MIXTURE. There are elements of truth in the claim, but also elements of falsehood.

****

The video said that “Sinn Féin decided that the time was right to increase rents in the North by 2.7% at a time when people were losing their jobs and businesses were closing”. 

In February 2020, Housing Executive rents in Northern Ireland did rise for the first time in five years by 2.75%.

Measures to tackle the funding crisis facing the government body were agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored power-sharing – and which was brokered in part by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney. 

This claim is TRUE. 

****

Fine Gael also said that Sinn Féin has promised to abolish local property tax in the south, “but then increased domestic rates, which is a tax on every home in the North in February 2020″. 

In the last general election, Sinn Féin did promise to abolish the properly tax. Domestic rates, which are set by local councils, were increased across Northern Ireland in February.

However, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy announced that there would be a freeze on domestic rates during the pandemic. This means that the cost of local, domestic rates will not change for the 2020/21 year. 

This claim is Mostly TRUE. This means: The claim is close to accurate, but is missing significant details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs in favour of the claim.

****

The video claims that the party promised to reduce the pension page to 65 in Ireland, “while voting to increase the pension age to 66 in the North”. Sinn Féin did promise in the general election to reduce the pension age to 65.

Pensions are a notoriously complex issue – from both a policy and political perspective. The vote Fine Gael is referring to took place in 2012 in the Assembly and will see the pension age in the North rise to 66 in October. 

The issue was raised in January during the election campaign. At the time, the party told the Independent: ”Westminster sets the pension age and controls the pension purse strings.”

This claim is Mostly TRUE. This means: The claim is close to accurate, but is missing significant details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs in favour of the claim.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie 

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