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Stirrings of resistance

Public discussion on Fresh Start Agreement 

12 February 2016

Last Saturday (6th Feb) a public meeting on the Fresh Start Agreement took place in Belfast.  Hosted by the Radical Education Group the meeting took the format of a introductory talk followed by a discussion.  The introduction was given by Ciaran Cunningham - a Unite The Community Branch activist from north Belfast - who had been involved in the recent protests against Fresh Start which took place outside a number of DUP and Sinn Fein offices.

Ciaran began by stating that while Fresh Start was an attack on the whole of the public sector he wanted to focus on its welfare elements as these were not getting the attention they should.  He said that no one was speaking for the disabled and the unemployed, and that this was partly down to the lack of organisation among these marginalised groups.  According to Ciaran the fundamental principal of a social security system should be to provide a minimum standard to living.  However, this principal was now coming under severe attack through the policy of austerity.  He claimed that many people had come to accept the “Tory narrative” that spending on benefits had caused the recession; and that the financial crisis had been transformed into an attack on the welfare state. While currently being conducted by the Tories Ciaran reminded people that this attack had actual begun some years earlier by New Labour.  He cited as an example the “fitness to work test” operated by the notorious ATOS Company which was introduced under Blair and Brown.

One of the most common methods used to cut welfare is to change the eligibility criteria. While benefits may still be available they are much more difficult to claim.  As an illustration of this Ciaran highlighted the new Personal Independent Payment (PiP) - the benefit that will replace DLA - qualification for which is set at a much higher threshold.  Under the old criteria a person suffering from depression had to show that they lacked the motivation to wash and feed themselves, but now they must prove that they require physical assistance to perform these tasks.  The assessment of who qualified for this benefit would be carried out by a private company called Maximus. 

Ciaran claimed that the Welfare Reform Bill passed by Stormont would bring in drastic cuts and affect an unknown number of people. He also pointed out that the reference in Fresh Start to fraud and error savings was actually a cover for the introduction of a sanctioning regime that would see people having their benefits stopped for the most trivial of reasons. For him welfare reform was nothing but an ideologically driven attack on the poor. 

While many people felt reassured by the mitigation package contained in Fresh Start the reality was that it came nowhere near Sinn Fein’s claim that no one would lose out.  It amounts to no more than the repackaging of already existing relief funds.  For Ciaran the latest mitigation package was just smoke and mirrors with the same amount of money contained in the aborted first Stormont House agreement being spread over a shorter period of time.  To justify welfare cuts the local parties were running with the Tory narrative of a trade off between benefits and services

Sinn Fein had completely caved in during the negotiations. It was Ciaran’s opinion that the party could have held firm as the British government was never going to pull down the Assembly over welfare.  Evidence that it was bluffing was the announcement by George Osborne soon after the agreement that his plans to cut working tax credits had been dropped. 

Ciaran expressed his disappointment that the stance of the trade unions leadership had gone from opposing Stormont House to supporting the almost identical Fresh Start within the space of a year.  For him the trade unions were discredited and the left groups were not taken seriously.  Ciaran put this down to the “passive” approach they had taken over the years and contrasted this to the current militancy of the far right which was influencing the polices of governments across Europe. 

Following Ciaran’s introduction the discussion was opened to the floor.   First to speak was John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy.  He made the point that the rich don’t bear any of costs for welfare - rather it was better off sections of the working class supporting the poorest  This raised the questioned of what welfare reform was really about.   John’s answer was that benefit cuts were designed to coerce people into work and thereby reduce the cost of labour.  He was also critical of ICTU and pointed out how the justification of trade union support for the political institutions had gone from a claim that Stormont would protect workers to a demand that workers make sacrifices in order to save Stormont.

The next speaker was a trade union member working in Translink.  He said that while much of the meeting had focused on welfare reform the affects of austerity on workers couldn’t be ignored.  He recounted his experience in Translink where Unite officials negotiated an agreement which it was claimed would protect front-line staff.   The reality of this was managers leaving with huge redundancy payments while workers come under more and more pressure.  For him the unions offered no defence of workers.  This raised the key questioned was how the current trade union leadership could be challenged  He welcomed the development of the Unite The Community branches and saw in their method of organising a means to revive the broader union movement. 

A consistent point raised in discussion was that trade unions were corrupt and that there were few mechanisms to hold the leadership to account.  An illustration of this was the response of Unite to the picketing of political offices by their community branch. The union failed to defend Cieraan Cunningham after a radio interview - in which he had been put forward as a spokesperson for Unite - threw up a political conviction had received ten years previously. 

Harry Hutchinson of the Mid Ulster Trades Council said that Fresh Start was Northern Ireland’s austerity programme and that it involved a rapid acceleration of ongoing cuts as well as tax reductions for business and privatisation.  While ICTU had engaged in fighting talk over the Stormont House Agreement early last year Harry believed that this was not serious and just a means of letting off steam.   He welcomed the recent calls from a number of trades councils for ICTU chair Peter Bunting to resign and saw in such calls the beginning of a small fightback.  Harry believed that trade councils acting in conjunction with community based groups was the most likely means to build an opposition.  He said that is was also necessary for left groups to work together even if it was based on a low level of agreement. 

Harry was followed by a speaker from the IWU.  He made the point that the local parties had the powers to put alternative welfare arrangements in place but instead decided to follow the lead of the British government.  What particularly dismayed him was the fact that that union members in the DSD were administrating the cuts without any complaint.  He also said that activists should consider direct action against the private companies that are involved in the welfare system.

The final speaker was a retired trade unionist from Dublin.  He said that what he had heard about the trade unions and the Fresh Start agreement was similar to the experience of social partnership in the south.  He gave the recent example of Dublin Bus where unions collaborated in imposing a cuts package and forced their members vote a number of times until they agreed to it.  That such things were happening around the anniversary of the 1913 Lockout seemed to be completely lost on people. The major problem was that trade union members were not organised to challenge the leadership.  As another example of social partnership in action he cited the case of Irish Water where trade unions had facilitated the transfer of workers from local councils to the new company despite their formal opposition to water charges. 

Ciaran Cunnigham came back briefly at the end.  He said he welcomed the call from Strabane Trades Council for Peter Bunting to resign.  For him this indicated that there was still some life left in a trade union movement he had almost given up on.  Ciaran concluded by calling again for the trade unions and the political left to break out of their “culture of passivity”. 

Given the lively and positive nature of the discussion it was agreed that another meeting would be held to examine further the implications of Fresh Start and the potential for building opposition to it. 

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