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Reports on two public meetings on Stormont budget

Belfast Trades Council meets on Stormont budget

The beginning of Trade Union resistance?

J M Thorn

21 January 2015

Last Thursday (15th) the Belfast Trades Council hosted a public meeting to discuss the potentially devastating impact of the recent Stormont budget and how it could be opposed.  Around 150 people packed into the Oh Yeah Centre.

An introduction by Kerry Fleck from the Belfast Trades Council explained what trades councils were and how they fitted into the structures of the labour movement. Kerry said that the meeting was one of a series that were being organised by trades councils across the north as part of the trade union led campaign against the budget.  This campaign had two elements: the first was to build support within trades unions for a day of action on the 13th March that would involve industrial action and a demonstration. The second was the establishment of community based campaign groups.  The overall objective was to build a broad opposition to cuts.  Kerry mentioned that the local meetings would be organised in the lead up to a mass public meeting at the MAC Theatre in Belfast at which political leaders would be invited to defend their positions.     

This introduction was followed by council president Paddy Mackel, who analysed the implications of budget and indicated how opposition to it could be built.  He said that the message of the campaign was a simple one - scrap the budget.  For him the sheer scale of the cuts demanded no less a response.  Paddy claimed that the cuts were part of a Tory inspired social engineering project to overturn the welfare state.  With the Stormont House Agreement the local parties had now clearly signed up to this project.   

Paddy went on to discuss the Agreement in more detail. He said that it was a disaster for public services. There was no extra money - what it allowed for was extra borrowing in order to fund a redundancy programme.  Dividing the total redundancy fund (£700m) by the average cost of a redundancy (£35,000) produced a figure of 20,000 redundancies. Paddy said that while trade unions have been criticised for scaremongering over the number of redundancies, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson had already suggested a figure 20,000 job losses and Sinn Fein had conceded that there would be “up to” 20,000.   The commitment by the Executive to reinvest the savings to maintain public services could only mean that workers recruited in the future would be on lower wages and worse conditions.  Paddy said this process was already underway with the increased use of agency workers and workers on zero hours contracts, particularly in the health service.  

In addition to the cuts related to the budget there was also the prospect of further cuts arising from a reduction in corporation tax.  This would reduce funding by another £400 million and result in another 20,000 redundancies.  Paddy estimated that overall the public sector workforce could fall by 50,000 over the next period.  This was in a context in which in any month there are around 50,000 people classified as unemployed but only 3,000 job vacancies. 

For Paddy the claims made for a cut in corporation tax were the Achilles heel of the Executive’s economic strategy.  He said that even if the best scenario is accepted a cut in corporation tax would create only 50,000 jobs over a twenty year period.  This in no way made up for the loss of public sector employment especially in the short term. Paddy also pointed out that the reductions to the block grant, resulting from a cut in corporation tax, would be greater than admitted by politicians as the calculation by the British Treasury would take into account not only the loss of revenue from businesses operating in the north but also the loss from businesses who move their headquarters functions from GB solely for tax purposes.  

Paddy concluded by reiterating the demand for the budget to be scrapped.  He claimed that the political elements of the Stormont House Agreement were not relevant to the campaign - it was all about the budget.  The objective was to build mass opposition to the cuts.  Public sector unions were committed to ballots for industrial action on the 13 March that would bring the place to a standstill.  For him it was this type of protest action that would force the parties to change their minds - particularly with elections coming up this year and next.  

The next speaker was Ciaran McCann from the bank officials union. He made the point that the budget would also impact on workers in the private sector - that large scale cuts would hit companies that supply services to the state sector.  Also, removing wages from the economy would hit retailers by reducing spending power.

Following this contribution there were a number of speakers from the community and voluntary sector.  These speakers attested to the very poor wages and working conditions within this sector.  As most of the schemes were grant aided the jobs associated with them would come to an abrupt end when the current round of funding finished in April.  There would be no notice period and no redundancy payments.  It was also claimed that the criteria for funding was being changed in order to exclude many existing schemes.  A number of speakers in this section of the meeting expressed disappointment with Sinn Fein’s climb down over welfare reform.  There was also some resentment directed towards civil servants.

After this there were contributions from people representing women and youth.   A speaker from the Belfast Feminist Network described how the impact of cuts fell disproportionally on women due to their prevalence in low paid/part time jobs and also because of the costs of child care.  A speaker from ICTU Youth said that young people were being denied opportunities because of the cuts.  He gave the example of the civil service were no one under the age of 20 had been recruited over the past six years because of a recruitment freeze.  He also claimed that the government was disguising the level of youth unemployment by encouraging young people to register as self-employed and apply for business start-up loans.  

The next section of the meeting was opened up to members of the audience. One of the first to speak was Cllr Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit.  He said that while there was no doubt that there was a big battle ahead he was sure it could be won.  He mentioned the earlier campaigns against water charges and the increase in student tuition fees as exemplars. Gerry said there was a need for community based campaigns which would initially involve mass leafleting and the setting up of local groups. Another one of the early contributions was from a Greek woman living and working in Belfast.  She described the devastating impact of austerity on Greece and also noted that the crisis there was in part due to its very low corporation tax.  She said that people should take encouragement from the likely victory of Syriza in the upcoming general election in Greece. 

Many of the people who spoke from the audience were associated with the Socialist Party.   And while there were variations in their contributions they all carried the same general argument. The first part of this was the assertion that the current round of cuts was home-grown and clearly associated with the parties at Stormont. There was also support for the creation of a trade union and community based campaign to oppose them (with speakers giving the example of the current water charges campaign in the south as a model).  The second part of their argument was the working class in the north was unrepresented and that it needed a political voice in order to more effectively challenge the austerity agenda.  Although they did not state it explicitly this is certainly a call the establishment of a Labour type party in the north - a position the Socialist Party have held for a long period of time.

The other main strand of opinion in discussion was that of the Community Party.  While not identifying themselves the line from their speakers was clear.  They were much more cautious in relation to protests and industrial action - emphasising the need to broaden the campaign and win over the unconvinced.  They did not see the campaign has a way of challenging the existing parties but rather to persuade them to take a different course.

There were a number of dissenting voices in the audience. For example, Brian Pelan from Unison said to applause that we had reached the end of the road in lobbying local politicians.  Another speaker, clearly mindful of the sectionalism that exists among trade unions, raised the prospect of workers in some sectors, such as education and health, being won over by minor concessions.  Someone also mentioned the 2011 fight against pension reform - that included a massive one day strike - which quickly fractured and went down to defeat.  There were also concerns that the proposed day of action on the 13 March would be a one off and that there was nothing planned beyond that date.

At the end of the discussion Paddy Mackel came back to address a number of the points that were raised.  It said that it was clear that this would not be a short term campaign and that the battle against austerity would go on for years.  However, he said that people should be cautious over calling for industrial action beyond the 13 March as some unions were still unconvinced.  Paddy concluded by saying that we had no choice but to fight the cuts.  He expressed confidence that a trade union and community campaign would be strong enough to make a difference. 

The public meeting in Belfast showed up all the strengths and weaknesses of the trade union movement in the north.  It certainly remains the only organised element that can mobilise a broad section of the working class. The problem is that the basis on which it mobilises is very limited. Just how limited was shown when area organising meetings set for the following week were cancelled following internal disputes among the union leaderships about the extent of the action, the level of criticism of politicians and a call to hold back given a number of marginal tweaks to reduce effects on health and education.    The campaign that the trade unions have in mind is a type of lobbying exercise which holds out the hope that agitated communities will somehow pressure the parties into changing course.   However, this misunderstands the nature of the political settlement in the north.  Under its terms austerity isn’t a merely a policy choice but rather an essential element for the survival of the political institutions.  This was neatly summed up in a headline from one of the local newspapers - “20,000 jobs to go as part of deal to save Stormont”.  

Contrary to what was claimed at the meeting the political elements of the Stormont House Agreement can’t be separated from its financial elements.  This is particularly true when those political elements are designed to entrench the sectarian divisions that have done so much to hold back the cause of labour in the north and will be employed to undermine any campaign against the budget.  
While a limited call to scrap the budget is a long way from a call to scrap Stormont it should be recognised as a small step forward.  The refusal of the trade unions to endorse the Stormont House Agreement signifies that we are entering a new period in the north in which the opportunities to put forward a socialist argument will increase.

Eirigi plan opposition to Stormont House 

Can unity be built?

A new phase in political development in the North of Ireland began on January 15th with ICTU's rejection of the Stormont House agreement and its economic programme of austerity, involving benefit cuts, sell off of state assets and 20,000 public sector redundancies. This led to an initial meeting on 15th January reported above.

At the same time a 40 strong meeting was hosted by eirigi a few miles away.  The clash hints at a level of hostility from the trade union side – the eirigi meeting had been organized many weeks in advance of the trades council meeting and there was not a high level of political activity forcing the conflict of times.

The eirigi meeting drew upon community activists to describe a culture of austerity that refused claimants even the most basic of rights. Those reports were backed up by a political analysis by Brendan Mac Cionnaith, who described the subsidies to transnational companies that cuts in corporation tax represented and the immense amounts that flowed from the public purse in the North in the form of Public Private Initiatives (PPI).

However there was little discussion of an action programme. Speaker Tommy McKearny's proposal of a campaign for a living wage seemed unconvincing. There was little enthusiasm for a proposal for a unity campaign alongside the trade unions.

The republican activists show a great deal of energy and conviction. The reality is that they cannot run a successful campaign alone but  it appears that they have yet to be convinced that a common struggle with the trade unions can be mounted in the face of indifference or hostility from a number on the trade union side.

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