No to Stormont House economy

Jim Larkin clipped ICTU’s John O’Farrell sets out the trade union movement’s reasons for opposing the deal.

Mondays in January can be a drag so I was cheered to read that a ‘straw poll’ of local potentates agreed that a big cut in corporation tax would be good for them. Around the same proportion agreed with each other that “any cut to NI’s block grant – which could be as much as £350m – should come out of a reduction in public spending.”

Astonishingly, some had the brass neck to decline a cost-free opportunity to look decent: “almost three-quarters of those quizzed would” invest in innovation and skills. This more than implies that over a quarter would not and improving skills for their workers or their productivity seems to be the job of the Department for Employment and Learning.

DEL has had a reprieve from the scary 10.6 per cent cut threatened in the draft Budget. Instead, in the statement from the Finance Minister, DEL will face a cut of 6.4 per cent.

That is the oldest trick in the book. Gordon Brown used to do it ahead of every Budget. Treasury officials and New Labour spads used to place bets on the scare story of the season. Child benefits or cancer research – something emotional to draw the attention and the flak in advance – followed up by an anti-climax on the big day which showed, after all, that the ‘emperor of the economy’ listened to the pleas of his subjects. Meantime, no-one noticed the sneaky stuff which saw inequality soar under New Labour, which has intensified under the Lib-Con coalition, and has finally arrived here in Northern Ireland.

Let us be clear. All of the stuff which has retarded progress in recent years is still unresolved. Take away the quadruple whammy of neoliberal nostrums – welfare reform, tax cuts for the wealthy ‘balanced’ by job cuts for the middling, and the sale of public assets – and there is no agreement whatsoever on anything substantial.

On flags, identity, culture and tradition, we’ll have a new quango from June 2015 with built-in vetoes for Sinn Féin and the DUP. Parades? Possible devolution to Assembly, possible return to the code of practice, no panel for North Belfast, possible legislation, possibly not.

For resolving the past, an archive (based on existing archives), a narrative by selected academics, continued but vague support for the Victims and Survivors Service, and a possible pension for the injured. The ‘historical investigations unit’ is a new quango, continuing the HET’s quango work. The ‘independent commission on information retrieval’ is a new quango. The ‘implementation and reconciliation group’ is incredibly vague but is seemingly to oversee some of above past stuff.

On institutional reform, it pledges five-seat constituencies from 2021 but petitions of concern are unchanged. There’s the possible structure for an opposition, the abolition of three departments, tiny changes to Executive meetings, and the cutting of consultations from the 12-week minimum to eight.

As for outstanding commitments, these include something for ‘civic voices’ that is not the Civic Forum but no Acht na Gaeilge, no bill of rights, no changes to the North/South Ministerial Council, and full implementation of TBUC.

On that blue Monday, I read two other stories which demonstrate the necessity of a sense of irony in this debate. The first was that the Allianz Arts & Business Awards had bestowed a gong for “sustained partnership” to the imperilled Ulster Orchestra and JTI International, days after the tobacco giant rejected a viable plan from Unite the Union to keep 500 jobs in Ballymena. Instead, JTI say they are fleeing EU regulations by moving operations to Poland, on the other side of the EU. Also, EY and KPMG between them have received over £2 million advising on Transforming Your Care. With one hand, they advise private sector clients on tax efficiency while expensively advising the public sector that the market is the model for ‘reforming’ and ultimately ‘rebalancing’ the economy.

But, as any accountant will tell you, the real question is this: “Who benefits?” Not the 900 JTI workers, nor the 20,000 public servants facing a future of precarious, badly-paid and low-status McJobs.

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