Pic: Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster
By Shaun Harkin
In the absence of a functioning Stormont Executive, James Brokenshire, the Tory Northern Ireland Secretary of State, legislated for a financial budget. Since the Assembly collapsed over the RHI ‘cash for ash’ scandal last January civil servants have been running government departments.
Though unelected, they have implemented hundreds of millions in across the board cuts to the health service, education, the fire service, the Community Sector and elsewhere.
May’s Tory government should be held fully accountable for the vicious cuts putting people’s lives at risk and driving up impoverishment across the North. Civil servant enacted cuts have been cynically used by Brokenshire to pressure Sinn Fein and the DUP to create a new Stormont Executive.
However, the Tories want a deal that let’s the DUP continue to block demands for Irish Language equality and for same-sex marriage.
This is not a deal we should be prepared to accept. Instead, pressure for equality should increase.
That said, Sinn Fein’s equality demands don’t go anywhere near far enough.
A deal to restore Stormont that doesn’t include the right to choose and an end to austerity won’t be one based on championing genuine equality.
Secondly, Brokenshire’s new budget for the North is lifted from the draft budget framework created by the previous SF/DUP Executive for which Sinn Fein’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was the finance minister.
In 2015, the SF/DUP Executive legislated for austerity in the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements. Parties who opposed austerity said this was necessary because there was simply no more money available.
However, this notion was shattered when the Tories awarded the DUP £1 billion for propping up May’s government following the disastrous showing in the Westminster election.
The new budget for the North legislated by Brokenshire is a continuation of Tory austerity here.
Brokenshire’s claim that there is to be a 3.2% daily increase in expenditure, and that the budget somehow represents a good deal for working class people; is nonsense.
With rising inflation taken into consideration this so-called ‘increase’ amounts, in real terms, to a spending cut.
In the allocation for Health, for example, Brokenshire presents the 5.4% increase as a major spending investment.
The reality is, with health inflation sitting at 6%; this allocation is not enough to cover the rising costs of running the health service.
As a result we’ll see cuts in this sector, with less money to spend on hospitals, nurses and improving the NHS.
Massive cuts to public services combined with the absence of a functioning government and DUP intransigence on equality has led to growing political frustration and anger.
Whether there’s direct rule or a return to Stormont or a continued period of political uncertainty, building resistance to the attack on public services, poverty wages and the slashing of benefits is urgent.
The recent protests against health cuts demonstrated the potential to build such a movement.
When it comes to the Irish Language, the Right to Choose, Marriage Equality, dealing with environmental scandals and ending austerity, we will make more progress by building and relying on a people power movement putting feet on the streets and willing to take direct action, including industrial action.
While the RHI investigation goes on, the Paradise Papers scandal has once again demonstrated there is plenty of wealth available to fund decent public services, good paying jobs and to deal with injustice and inequality.
A people power movement is the key to winning our demands now, taxing the super-rich and bringing down the Tory/DUP coalition of chaos.