Saturday, November 27, 2010
First of all, there's a near consensus in favour of pro-free market and pro-business policies across all political parties, bar Eamonn McCann's 'People Before Profit' alliance. For example, everyone from Sinn Fein to the DUP backed a cut in corporation tax to 12.5%. That was their only growth strategy, as far as I could tell. Secondly, sectarianism remains the basis for political mobilisation in Northern Ireland, but it's become a curiously convivial kind of sectarianism at official levels - it's almost an in-joke when the Unionist says that some policy is being blocked by the Sinn Feiners or something like that. Thirdly, there's a degree of openness and concord with the unions that is unthinkable in the mainland. Brian Coleman wants to "break the FBU", but at the moment it's difficult to imagine a politician in the six counties being that brash. The assembly is a small quasi-autonomous body, and I suspect the last thing it wants is the big fight with the public sector that it has coming up.
The first issue that was raised was who was responsible for the crisis. Mitchell McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said it was the banks and the IMF, and the governments who empowered them, and he looked forward to seeing the government of Éire duly punished for this - which, after Sinn Fein's victory in the Donegal South-West bye-election, is straightforward tub-thumping for the coming general election in the south. Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP sounded a bit like a Labour politician in some respects. I later learned that the DUP voted 87% of the time with Labour in Westminster rather than the Tories, which tells you how they build a base - they're not, like the UUP, just an auxiliary of the Conservative Party. He said that the problem was that the Tories had let the financial sector run amok at the expense of a stable manufacturing sector, that this had created a foundation of sand, and that he was only sorry that ordinary people would pay the price while banks got off scot-free. He was quite charismatic and jocular, and you can see how he gets elected.
Stephen Farry of the Alliance maintained that some governments, like Australia, had avoided the worst by having different policies (he didn't mention that this actually involved an unprecedented stimulus). He said that the problem was with government policy as much as with the banks, for creating an imbalanced economy based too much on property. Then he repeated the hateful catechism that "we are all in this together". On that, a firefighter spoke up from the floor and told him off, pointing out that the pain was not being distributed equally or fairly, that it was mostly hitting those who didn't do anything to cause the crisis, and that to claim "we're all in it together" is patronising, condescending and not even true. Farry stuck to his guns, but said that he aspired to distribute the cuts as fairly as possible within the Assembly's limited fiscal powers. Alistair McDonnell of the SDLP cautioned against getting angry and emotional. Yes, the banks and the exchequer are to blame, but we have too look for a solution, he said. But he admitted that he didn't quite know what that solution would be. John McCallister, of the Ulster Unionists' Party, was the only one who sounded like a full-blown Tory, I suppose because that's what he is. He blamed people for borrowing too much, he blamed the banks for lending too much, he blamed Labour for taking its foot off the brakes on public spending after 2000, saying they "spent and spent and spent" so that the country is effectively broke. But he did acknowledge that we can't have an unfettered free market any more.
Eamonn McCann argued that to ask who is responsible for the crisis is to ask who has been in control of the economy. "It hasn't been the trade unions, and it hasn't been working class communities, and it has been none of the people facing the cutting edge of austerity". The people in charge are capital, specifically finance capital, who acknowledge now law but profits. The problem was not who, but what - the problem was the capitalist system. He agreed with other speakers that the problem was global, and that the Assembly's ability to deal with it was limited, but this meant there couldn't be any specifically local solution. There had to be a movement of resistance across borders. I have to say, the reactions of the other politicians to Eamonn was warily respectful. They tended to try and find common ground with rather than, as I would have expected if this were taking place in London, exhibit contempt for his arguments. I'm not sure if this is because of his own standing, or just because the argument for resistance to capitalism has become that much more like common sense after the crisis. But it's something to think about.
The next issue, therefore, was what politicians proposed to do to solve the problem, and make sure it didn't happen again. Jeffrey Donaldson's argument was buck-passing. Essentially, he said, we get half of our budget from taxes, and half from the central government. The government has cut our budget, so either we cut public spending, or we raise taxes. Our only tax-raising powers are with the rates, or we can apply water charges. Both of these are unpopular, barring some hypothecated tax for health and education, so de facto people want us to cut spending. He also said to "our friends from England" that the English taxpayer pays much higher rates (council tax) than people in Northern Ireland, and that Northern Ireland is heavily subsidised by the central government in terms of public spending. Interesting to see how eager John McCallister said we need to have a pay freeze in the public sector, because there's already pay cuts in the private sector, and perhaps we could raise regional rates. Alistair McDonnell favoured cutting quangos, reducing senior civil servants' pay, further regulation, more restrictions on personal finance.
Mitchell McLaughlin argued that we're not going to prevent it from happening again, because the system is too global and Northern Ireland's ability to influence the global system is negligible. The best we can do, he said, is fight for more fiscal powers for the six counties. He's still working the nationalist angle, for all the good it'll do. He also argued that the cuts should be focused more on people with higher incomes, but said little specific in this regard. In general, three points of agreement among the bourgeois politicians, were that: 1) finance should be more regulated, with no more 110% mortgages and no more shady bank deals; 2) the "pain" should be shared as "fairly" as possible; and 3) "frontline services" should be protected as far as possible. None of them appeared to have thought through what that would involve - the system has relied on speculation and debt for the last thirty years or so, and no one suggested an alternative. They certainly aren't talking about boosting workers' wages or bargaining power to support consumption. When pushed about spreading the "pain" "fairly", Stephen Farry said that this was more of an aspiration than anything else. And as Eamonn McCann pointed out, frontline services aren't going to be protected because they aren't even being protected now, before Northern Ireland's austerity budget has been agreed.
A critic from the audience said he was "disappointed by the defeatist attitude of the panel. So far, no one is talking about creating employment, which would generate the revenue to support public spending". And that's where the old Tory argument came back in. Free up private enterprise, get the burden of the public sector off their backs, and they'll invest in jobs. Start by cutting corporation tax to 12.5% to match the south. Mitchell McLaughlin supports this because he wants "a level playing field" with the south. He said that he didn't favour the private sector, for his own ideological reasons which he didn't spell out, and added that if the south raises their rate, the north would "meet them on the way down". But he said "to have a strong public sector, you need to have a strong private sector generating the revenues to support that". This was more or less identical to the argument of those who were ideologically disposed to support the private sector. They all said much the same thing - cutting the corporate taxes worked in the south and, anyway, we now have to compete with Eastern Europe where the cost base is much lower. Eamonn McCann pointed out that this amounted to a redistribution of wealth from the public sector to private enterprise, on the basis of a prejudice that the private sector is more efficient. Indeed, there's an assumption that the public sector is somehow parasitic on the private sector, when the evidence is that at the moment the public sector is supporting the private sector. But, he argued, there is no evidence that more jobs will be created by cutting jobs in the public sector. The private sector only invests if it's profitable for them to do so, and only creates jobs if it suits them, so handing them a load of money won't necessarily make them more likely to employ more people. But above all, he argued, you can't begin to argue about creating jobs in the future if you can't first defend what you have.
Then it was pointed out, again by a firefighter, that the government is talking about cutting 25% from the Northern Ireland fire and rescue service, and that this will mean at best scrapping fire appliances all across the country. Another firefighter said: "you know that cutting the fire and rescue service won't be a soft option for you, because we won't let it be a soft option for you." This was a friendly, but authoritative, warning. There was not much that could be said on this point. All of the assembled politicians were aware of what cuts of that scale would mean, and there were some promises - to my mind, half-hearted and vague - that they would 'try' to see that they would do about that, citing the issue of public safety and the increased security threat as reasons to lessen the swinge of the axe. Eamonn McCann argued that the 'terrorist threat' was itself the result of the problems with capitalism - it is not an upsurge of Republicanism, but the fact that young people in deprived areas want to fight that is leading them to sympathise with the 'Real IRA'. He said he had spoken to supporters of the Reals, and they had told him, "Eamonn, at least they're still fuckin fightin." He said it has to do with the distribution of resources in society, and that if anything the public sector needed to be expanded not reduced, with more youth services and schools provided.
Mitchell McLaughlin said he didn't disagree with this, but argued that this only underlined further the need for the devolution of fiscal powers. McCann said that the problem could be solved by simply collecting existing tax. £123bn had gone uncollected every year, he said, allowing businesses like Vodafone to escape from the lion's share of their tax duty. If all the tax was collected, we wouldn't even be having a discussion about cuts. "People say you can never do that, these people are too powerful. But is that really so? Or does it depend on will?" He argued that it was necessary to build the social forces that could make them pay their taxes and make governments defend the public sector. Mitchell McLaughlin closed by agreeing that the Vodafone issue said it all, and that it would be necessary to build up the energies that could take this issue on. On the other hand, he said, "these people own the system"... And that, I think, is Mitchell McLaughlin and the Sinn Fein leadership. They are reluctant neoliberals. In fact, the only thing that seemed to distinguish the mainstream politicians was their degree of reluctance in implementing the same basic agenda of cutting spending, reducing taxes on businesses, talking up regulation (they don't have to do anything), and hoping for the best. The question, then, is whether the trade unions in Northern Ireland form part of a wider sweep of resistance, across the UK and Ireland and effectively across the continent.