For months, the Stormont institutions have been on the verge of collapse as the main parties try to settle disputes over the budget. They have now come to an agreement, the so called ‘fantasy budget’. Fantasy; as it presupposes all parties will implement Welfare Reform. This is not the case, as Welfare is now one aspect of the Agreement which is a matter of contention between Sinn Féin and the DUP.
As for the other parts of the Agreement; austerity in the public sector, the sell-off of public assets, the 20,000 job redundancy scheme; both Sinn Féin and the DUP are in agreement that these must go ahead. Digging the feet in the sand over Welfare is welcome, but hardly enough, given the extent of austerity implicit in the rest of agreement. In fact, it could even be seen as merely an attempt to save face, and put a left wing gloss over a budget which will see unprecedented job losses, and austerity measures like never before in the North.
The majority of all this was already agreed as far back as December, when Sinn Féin and the DUP produced the Stormont House Agreement. Subsequently, Sinn Fein dropped its support for this on the basis they had ‘been misled’ by the DUP over Welfare cuts. It was, however, not the case that Sinn Fein had been misled. As pointed out by Socialist Worker as far back as January, the extent of the welfare cuts had been made clear in Assembly debates, and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, among other Tories, consistently stated there would be no extra provisions for Welfare.
The real reason behind Sinn Fein’s decision to renege on the STA is they underestimated the extent of opposition from the Trade Union Movement in the North Their decision to revert was taken shortly after the massive March 13 strike.
Furthermore, the contradictions of a party which claims to be anti- austerity in the South, while at the same time, implementing a neoliberal budget in the North, presented serious problems for their electoral aspirations south of the border.
While Sinn Féin, rightly, have grievances over welfare reform, they are perfectly content with the rest of the Agreement. This is worrying as implicit in the budget are the worst attacks on working class people we have seen for a generation
It is comprised of three main elements; firstly, the Stormont House Agreement diagnoses the North’s economic problems as lying in the public sector being too large. It proposes massive cutbacks to public services such as schools, hospitals, roads, transport and welfare. These cuts are most apparent in the plan to slash 20,000 civil service jobs in a voluntary redundancy scheme. This would see Stormont borrow £700 million from Westminster to lay off thousands of workers; a move which no doubt would see the Tories rubbing their hands together with glee in Downing Street.
Secondly, the Agreement intends the sell-off of public assets; something which neither Sinn Fein or the DUP are contesting. The Waterfront Hall and Belfast Harbor have been earmarked for privatization, and the DUP’s Arlene Foster recently stated NI Water could be a potential revenue raiser if water charges were brought in.
Thirdly, the Agreement intends to see powers to set corporation tax devolved. The intention here, is to reduce corporation tax for big business, in the hope investment from the private sector will plug the inevitable hole that results from billions of cuts to public services, and thousands of redundancies.
All the discussions surrounding this budget have been squarely situated within framework the neo-liberal narrative set by Westminster; i.e. the public sector is too large, welfare spending is too high, we must cut back on services and give incentives to big business in order to reinvigorate the economy.
Sinn Féin is not challenging this narrative. The DUP want to press on with the Stormont House Agreement, accepting that cuts and austerity are the only way forward for the economy. Sinn Féin are in agreement with every other aspect of the STA apart from Welfare cuts. When it comes to hospitals, the community and voluntary sector, roads, transport, schools; there is to be cuts. Sinn Féin Education Minister John O’Dowd, himself, recently announced that 500 teachers and 1000 support staff would be lost in schools by September 2015.
We need to mount a major grassroots resistance to this budget. Any party that considers itself genuinely, anti-austerity, should refuse to implement it. If this means collapsing the Assembly then so be it. Why is the institution worth upholding if it is simply an instrument for the Tories to implement austerity measures?
If Stormont collapsed it has been suggested that we could return to the ‘dark days’ of the troubles. This is nonsense, and in fact, is insulting to working class people here.
If Stormont collapsed on the basis of one party’s rejection of austerity, this would give confidence to the anti-austerity movement on the streets, give confidence to trade unionists in the workplaces, and inspire confidence in people across the North to mount a serious challenge to the Tories’ neoliberal agenda.
It’s not enough to raise concerns about one aspect of this agreement. We must oppose it in its entirety. Stormont has shifted, certainly. But only because of pressure from below. More of the same will force their hand further.