There is an alternative

Jim Larkin clipped Brian Campfield sets out the trade union movement’s policy platform for countering austerity.

No one could be in any doubt from the impressive strike and public rallies across Northern Ireland on 13 March that the trade union movement is determined to resist the implementation of austerity policies on our people. The main message of the day is a direct challenge to the anti-social ideology of austerity and a determination to argue for a better, fairer way forward.

Many commentators lazily describe Northern Ireland as having an imbalanced economy and an unsustainable public sector. Whatever one’s views on the constitutional question, such ‘analysis’ confuses Northern Ireland’s economic power/potential with that of a separate sovereign state and ignores the fact that while as a region we are comparable in many respects to other deindustrialised areas, our unequal economic development was compounded by a 40-year conflict. To suggest that we can act in unilateral economic terms deliberately misses the point about unequal development and the need for a collective approach, based on a redistributive tax system.

Investment in public services, social security and public sector jobs – i.e. opposition to austerity – is therefore economically essential. After the May Westminster election Northern Ireland’s MPs must be ready to seize the opportunity to use their potentially enhanced political leverage in a hung Parliament and capture a major prize for the whole community here – an adequate public expenditure settlement. In 2010, the leaders of the devolved assemblies and their finance ministers publicly issued a joint statement decrying the four-year public expenditure settlement for the UK and declared that it was bad for the devolved areas. Should the opportunity arise again in May, this common approach involving Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should be rekindled but with a much more robust and aggressive engagement with any party or parties seeking support for any new government. In other words, no support for austerity.

In the meantime the Northern Ireland Executive can do things differently. For example, the financial elements of the Stormont House Agreement propose using £700 million to run down public services via 20,000-30,000 redundancies – a destructive interpretation of the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative.

If the borrowing rules are now so ‘flexible’, why not use such money constructively? For example, this £700 million and the £350 million surrendered to corporations via a tax cut could build 25,000 homes for our citizens and create thousands of jobs in the construction industry. This would be a real boost to the economy not the accountants’ self-interested fantasies about what the ‘holy grail’ of lower corporation tax will bring.

Similarly, the infrastructural investment proposed by the Nevin Economic Research Institute in January 2013 (supported by both the trades unions and the construction employers) outlined support for the green economy, by investment in the retrofitting of homes across Northern Ireland, saving energy, reducing carbon emissions and creating employment (over 3,000 jobs for each £10 million investment).

The trades union movement understands the restrictions that our peculiar political arrangements and the block grant, as the source of the main available funds, have on the ability of the Northern Ireland Executive to meet all the needs to our community. Some of our political parties want additional fiscal powers but the purpose of having fiscal powers is to use them. The absence of any reliable information about the scale and distribution of wealth in Northern Ireland and how it could be subject to some redistributive fiscal instruments is a real problem and rectifying this deficiency must be a priority for the Northern Ireland Executive.

We see the power, reach and universalism of the state as an asset to use, not strip. Austerity is the reverse; a programme written by and for the City of London, fuelled by massive corporate welfare, targeting the remaining free at the point of use public services, and aiming to turn them into for-profit service for private shareholders. We do not accept this anti-social programme and will resist it.

Brian Campfield is the General Secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance.

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