LYNDA WALKER reports on the Stormont House accords, finalised at the end of last year, which set out a savage right-wing programme of asset-stripping, cuts and privatisation for the people of Ireland
THE WORK of the progressive and labour movement to defend the standard of living in Ireland, north and south, is indeed a mammoth task.
In the north the Stormont House Agreement has given the green light for what can only be described as a new right-wing agenda which has capitulated to Conservative and DUP policy. It must grieve their hearts full sore to know that water and transport is not privatised and that there is a heavy dependence on public services.
This agreement, made just before Christmas, is set out in the papers “Stormont House Agreement and the UK Government Financial Package to Northern Ireland” and is a result of talks between the British and Irish governments and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It is a shocking agreement for the people of the north. For the government in the south, it is a welcome settlement that will help them in their right-wing policies and the privatisation of what is left of the public services and utilities, water being the obvious target.
In the “finance and welfare” section, the agreement sets out a “comprehensive financial package to help deliver across its priorities,” with a spend of almost £2 billion.
But as one prominent journalist wrote: “If this document does not exactly reflect the hand of history, it certainly smacks of the hand of Margaret Thatcher. It was achieved by the British government moving from bribing Stormont with its own money, to bribing it with its own debt.”
Part of this £2bn is based upon borrowing, one example being the £700 million of capital borrowing to fund a voluntary redundancy scheme over a period of four years. This will be used to pay off, or buy off, workers in the Civil Service and will be accompanied by what’s described as an independent strategic review of public-sector reform, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is tasked with reporting by the end of this year. Its remit, in other words, is privatisation.
There will be an additional borrowing of £350m for infrastructure projects over a four-year period, yet there are no details given.
In a section relating to commitments to previous agreements, the British and Irish governments recognise the importance of understanding, tolerance and respect in relation to linguistic diversity and endorse “the need for respect to, and recognition of, the Irish language in Northern Ireland, consistent with the Council of Europe charter on regional or minority languages.” Interestingly enough, First Minister Peter Robinson has said that there had been no agreement regarding the Irish language.
Up to £500m over 10 years will provide new capital funding to support “shared and integrated education.”
In response, the Communist Party of Ireland has drawn attention to Robinson’s declaration that Belfast harbour would be sold. Neither of the two documents refers to what will be sold but built into the agreement are the magic words which allow “the proceeds of specifically agreed assets sales to be retained in their entirety and exceptionally consideration of these funds being used for a combination of both capital and resource spending.” And the Stormont executive will have the “flexibility to repay loans from the Treasury and welfare deductions from asset sales.”
The sale of Belfast harbour, a major asset not just of that city but of Ireland as a whole, drew a response last week from the Belfast Telegraph in an article promoting privatisation. It quotes Ukip’s David McNarry, who says: “It is clear if you look at the Stormont House Agreement that we have to sell our assets.
“The assets that can raise money are Belfast harbour, which is going to be sold, and NI Water ... It also means getting rid of a transport system which is costing an arm and a leg to run.” McNarry said he understood it had been “agreed in principle” at the talks that NI Water would be sold and transport privatised.
Stormont, tasked with completing “welfare reform” during 2015-2016, has won the backing of Sinn Fein, which justifies its support for the agreement on the grounds of “defending the most vulnerable against the Tory welfare and budget cuts.” But the agreement is wider than the cuts and Sinn Fein’s broken promise to oppose the dismantling of the welfare system looks like they are going to let the people down big time.
Responsibility for corporations tax will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in April 2017 and the block grant will be adjusted accordingly. This sop to big corporations, who already have a shameful history of tax avoidance, will cost the north dearly. The claim by Peter Robinson that over 55,000 jobs will result from this is fictitious.
Responsibility for parades and related protests, the agreement says, should now “in principle” be devolved to Stormont. In effect, this will mean the disestablishment of the Parades Commission, a demand that the DUP have been pushing for over recent months and new legislation is to be brought forward by June 2015.
The regulation of parades and related protests, according to the document, should be based on respecting the rule of law, those who parade, those who protest and those who live and work in areas in which parades and protests take place.
It seems that we have heard all this before and if the Orange Order and DUP do not “respect the rule of law” now why should they be expected to change in the future?
“Civic voices” are being encouraged and a “new engagement model” proposed to advise the Northern Ireland executive, one that is a “compact civic advisory panel” which would be “made to minimise the administrative costs.” This sounds rather too neat to be of any real use. There is also reference to the need for the “advancement of women in public life,” which will probably lead to an unrepresentative showcase of a Women into Politics-funded project.
The agreement states “that there is not at present consensus on a Bill of Rights” a reduction of MPs is also planned, and commissions are to be established to deal with issues of the past and victims.
The Sinn Fein executive has now agreed to these terms and the DUP seem likely to also. According to reports, the Ulster Unionists have failed to “fully back” the proposals. While they say that “finances still aren’t sorted,” it appears that they are not happy with the establishment of a commission to address the issue of flying the union flag.
They are not opposing it for any solid economic reasons and it is reminiscent of the “wrap the union flag around me boys and girls as we are thrown out of our jobs, have our land stolen from us and our water privatised.” It would appear that the SDLP, the Green Party and the Alliance Party are giving the Agreement a cautious welcome. But, reading between the lines, no party is really satisfied with the deal — with the exception of the Conservatives — and we can second guess how long the “harmony” will last.
The Communist Party of Ireland welcomes discussion and we encourage people and organisations to give their views about this latest agreement.
We firmly declare that the fight to retain human rights, employment and ownership of our natural resources and assets is not reformist but essential to defend the living standards of the people of Ireland. We are determined to help build a movement to fight back and to change the society that we live in. But that is no easy task.
Lynda Walker is chair of the Communist Party of Ireland.