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The day after the night before

Britain presents a bill to the new Stormont

SF, DUP, cry foul - but don't say no

1 March 2024

Stormont Minister of Finance Caoimhe Archibald.

The two years following the collapse of the last Stormont administration were dominated by calls to “get Stormont working”. A horrific collapse in public services was blamed on the absence of the politicians. The actions of the British, who were actually in charge of the statelet, were studiously ignored, as was the actual history of Stormont as a hotbed of corruption and rivalry over sectarian patronage. Despite the DUP roadblock these expectations united Sinn Féin, many unionists, the trade unions, the middle class and the media.

The reality was different. At the centre of the last Stormont, as with this one, is a forced coalition of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Rather than uniting around an agreed programme, they share out patronage. The DUP concentrated on reassuring their supporters by modifications to the protocol with Europe and assertions of British supremacy summed up in the Sustaining the Union document. Remarkably, the only Sinn Féin demand over two years was for the return of Stormont with Michelle O'Neill as First Minister.

In the past re-establishing Stormont was accompanied with substantial bribes to the parties. This did not benefit workers, because each settlement also involved substantial austerity proposals aimed at public services.

Things are different today. None of the local parties represent any threat to British rule and they see no need to coax the politicians. The British offer a £3.3 billion payment, involving a delay in the payment of millions owed to the Treasury, a substantial increase in the amount awarded under the Barnett formula for allocating funds to UK regions.

When you get pass the headlines, the problems begin. Barnett changes will be introduced over many years. The budget extends from 2022 until 2025. A large component goes on an immediate settlement of public sector pay. Money for the health service is in the context of the Bengoa Report and mass privatisation of health services.

The political aspects of Brexit in the North of Ireland have been temporarily resolved. Now the economic consequences are being felt. The British have built in a few special enterprise zones and freedom to change corporation tax. The want the new administration to play its part in driving down workers’ rights. The first step is to propose plans to deliver a balanced budget for 2024/25 that includes a minimum of £113 million raised through locally generated income.

There are plenty of hints. Papers have been drawn up suggesting water charges alongside prescription charges, ending free transport for the elderly and sharp increases in student fees. Control of corporation tax has been devolved with the idea that it should be cut. This is a knife in the heart of local populism, where the administration meets some bills but expects London to pay up.

Sinn Féin and the DUP have reacted with indignation. There will be no water charges. There will not be a rate increase, at least not a 15% increase.  The British have not taken into account the higher levels of poverty and need. The new administration would need time to produce a comprehensive plan. They plan to push back, that is to go to London and ask for more. They are not refusing to pay, just asking for more time.

One fly in the ointment is funding for the Casement Park project in West Belfast. The price is over £200 million and the British are expected to provide funds for the near £100 million shortfall. What is essentially a bribe for nationalism now stands out because of inflated costs and a landscape of cuts in welfare services. It has also become clear that the original justification, of promoting Gaelic sports, has been replaced by a venue that will begin with a five-nation (promotion to nationhood for the Northern statelet) Euro soccer series where Andersonstown will have an opportunity to stand for the British national anthem. In the longer term the venue will be a source of corporate and entertainment events organised by Féile An Phobail.

We can wish the local politicians’ luck in their pushback of approaching the Tories with a new begging bowl. A wave of bankruptcies is sweeping across English councils starved of funds by the Tory Government. Britain is surrounded by a brown stain of sewage because of a lack of regulation of the private water services. The new economic policy is more cuts, with Sir Kier Starmer waiting in the wings and making it clear that he will offer more of the same.

There are a few immediate alternatives. The administration could use access to the rest of Ireland and the European market to boost the economy, if this were not ruled out by the Strengthening the Union document which tempted the DUP back into Stormont. Another alternative would be a progressive taxation, increasing corporation tax and taxing the wealthy and local businesses.

One local reporter suggested this in the face of a deathly silence from all the local parties.

The local unions have been the main focus of opposition in the sense that, for a brief period, they gave up on presenting a local assembly as the answer to workers needs and directly addressed the British themselves in a series of strikes.  However, a sectoral public pay deal has now been put to a vote. The claim is that the offer, 5% plus a lump sum, restores parity with British workers.

This is only true in the sense that the offer is identical to the offer in England. It is not parity in that it ignores years in which local workers living standards have fallen behind their peers and the union leaders, after brief protest, have ignored the fact that the budget cannot possibly support any sizable further increase.

The stability of the new settlement depends politically on Sinn Féin’s capitulation. Their claim of a “First Minister for All” is a policy of embracing unionism and British power in the name of equality, identity and diversity.

Economically it rests on worker's paying the price. Wages will be at rock bottom while public services disintegrate. Privatisation and corruption will run rampant. The social wage of public services will be eaten away.

The political atmosphere is dominated by identity politics and by the theory of social partnership between the classes. Progress depends on a return of class consciousness and on the construction of a party designed to defend the needs of the working class.

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