DUP Minister for Communities, Paul Givan, is set to rip the heart from communities across the North with cuts to our vital library service. Gavin Campbell reports.
Givan is in charge of implementing cuts agreed to by Sinn Fein’s Caral Ni Chuilin, the former minister for the now defunct Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. In practice, this simply further illustrates Sinn Fein and the DUP’s commitment to inflicting austerity upon the people of the North.
Despite a reported rise in the use of libraries, Givan is overseeing a budget cut of over £2 million for fourteen of the busiest libraries. Belfast Central, Bangor Carnegie, Derry Central, Lisburn City, Omagh, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Dungannon, Enniskillen, Finaghy, Glengormley, Lurgan and Newry library all face reduced hours. The cuts will impact workers hours, stocks and maintenance budgets. Since Libraries NI’s inception in 2009, this is the third round of cuts they have faced. Libraries NI conducted a public consultation between May 17th and July 17th on when hours should be cut but not on whether hours should be cut.
For a minister of ‘communities’ to begin his tenure by attacking the very fabric of the community provides a glimpse of the motivation that lies behind the NI Executive’s so-called ‘Fresh Start’ agreement.
Libraries provide a vital service in our communities. With deepening austerity and growing deprivation it is no coincidence that library usage has increased. For many people unable to afford an internet connection the library provides a lifeline for seeking employment. This is especially true for anyone on benefits, since benefits can be cut if evidence of seeking work can’t be demonstrated.
The rate of fuel poverty in the north is 42%, undoubtedly many people socialise in our libraries as a place of warmth and comfort during the day to ensure they can afford to heat their homes at night. Many working class young people don’t live in homes with space for study; after school the library is full of students completing homework or studying for exams. Additionally, many community groups avail of the resources and services provided by the library.
While Sinn Fein and DUP are implementing the cuts, the new ‘official Stormont opposition’ of the UUP and the SDLP sit quietly doing nothing. While we’re told the typical line ‘there is no money’, these are the same parties who borrowed £700 Million from Westminster for a scheme known as the ‘public sector transformation fund’. Outrageously, this money has been designated to fund redundancies rather than services. For example, the NI Executive could use this money borrowed from Westminster to better fund libraries and other vital public services, rather than dismantle them.
With this in mind, it is not difficult to draw parallels with what’s happening to our libraries with attacks on public libraries in England where they have been closed, taken over by private groups or left heavily dependent on volunteers. Reducing public services makes way for companies to profit and pushes the services libraries currently provide further out of reach of those who need them most. And, it’s also an attack on good paying union jobs.
NIPSA, the public sector union representing library workers across the North, has issued a strong statement describing reduced hours as ‘counterproductive’, the consultation as ‘flawed’ and demanding the maintenance of appropriate funding in the short and longer term:
“NIPSA has been involved in campaigns to stop closures of libraries in Greater Belfast and also in more rural communities. We have also lobbied strongly against severe budget cuts in recent years which caused significant concern at the time that some libraries would be forced to close if that level of cuts was imposed. Thankfully the Minister at the time was persuaded to change her mind.”
“A decision to reduce hours in the main libraries will clearly impact, severely in some cases, on the ability of each library to remain visible and accessible to the very people it is trying to provide a service to.”
“In the short term it is imperative that the money, substantially less than £200k as NIPSA understands, should be provided to Libraries NI to protect its current library provision. In the medium to longer term there needs to be a broader debate about ensuring that we don’t have to revisit this issue year after year. Libraries are there for everyone today and are a societal investment for the future. Libraries need protections. To do otherwise is fundamentally anti-community.”
However, the statement came after the consultation period ended and little appears to have been done by the union to mobilise members to actively oppose the cuts and to win broader public support. This is very important as large numbers of people here understand the role libraries play and are very supportive of efforts to defend them. Nevertheless, campaigns and rallies have been organised across the North opposing any reductions in service and calling upon the Minister for Communities to restore funding.
In Derry, a ‘Save the Derry Central library – No Cuts’ campaign has been established. Our message to the consultation was: no reduction in hours and services! People Before Profit has given full support to the campaign and it has received solid support from students, union members, community groups, multiple campaigning organisations and representatives from across the city. If campaigns at the affected libraries can grow in numbers and strength, we believe pressure from below can halt the cuts.
Neoliberal austerity is hardwired into both the Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start Agreement. There is a relentless drive towards cuts from both Westminster and Stormont. However, austerity only brings prosperity to the already rich. There is no intention to use savings to improve public services in the future but to permanently destroy them in order to deepen privatisation. This is why opposition is crucial. Defending libraries and other public services defends and protects all working class communities. To stop the library cuts and all cuts, communities across the North must be united and determined to not to allow our services to die a death from a thousand cuts.