Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Bring welfare legislation to the floor of the Assembly - McGuinness

12 September, 2014 - by Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness, delivering a keynote address at the Sinn Féin National Strategy session in Termonfeckin this morning, said; 

It is great to have these two days with colleagues to discuss common approaches to shared problems. It is clear that our economies north and south are interlinked and interdependent.

The economic downturn and recession hit families and businesses across Ireland, North and South. Sinn Féin has a common approach to these problems, we need investment to create jobs and grow the economy and we must safeguard the needs of those most vulnerable in society.

Today families and communities across this island continue to face economic hardship and inequality. These are common problems facing us across the island.

Austerity and cuts to public services are at the heart of many of the problems that we face. Sinn Féin is against austerity north and south and we believe that the policy of attacking the least able to pay is fundamentally wrong. That is why we are against the welfare cuts that the British Tory party want to introduce in the north and so far we have been able to protect citizens from the worst affects of their despicable selfish policies.

No one in the north of Ireland voted for these vicious cuts.

No one in the north of Ireland voted for those Tory politicians who are driving this agenda. In this state the social consequences of austerity are evident everywhere – the ongoing destruction of our health services, the imposition of water charges, the family home tax and the removal of protection for working families, senior citizens, cuts to child benefit, carers allowance, the appalling increase of poverty, wholesale unemployment and emigration.

The one thing that should unite the northern Executive is the defence and protection of those who need the support and help of wider society.

Since the Tory-led coalition came to power there has been a sustained and systematic assault on public services and the very concept of the welfare state. The money allocated to the Executive has remained static year on year. In the context of inflation, increasing wages and rising costs this means a real cut in public spending every year. Next year we are facing into a £500 million reduction which will have a devastating effect on our public services.

None of the policies of the Tory-led coalition takes any account of the unique challenges facing the north of Ireland as a society emerging from conflict with higher levels of deprivation, higher livings costs and greater dependence on the public sector.

The Tory-led government in London are demanding we now cut the income of the poorest in our society while their rich backers continue to avoid and evade taxes and the bankers who created the economic crisis continue to enjoy obscenely large bonuses.

Over the summer we have heard a great deal of commentary about the consequences of not legislating for the benefits cuts demanded by this British government agenda. Let’s be clear these proposals will not create one job but will force thousands of families into greater poverty.

The advocates of Tory cuts have been less than vocal when it comes to the consequences for their own constituents, individuals, families and communities who will lose money if these cuts were implemented.

As is the case under Fine Gael and Labour the people who will lose money if the vicious Tory welfare cuts are implemented are the least well-off in our society – people with disabilities, low income workers, the vulnerable and the unemployed. People - already on the poverty line - would lose even further as a result of decisions made by Tory millionaires in government in London.

The DUP are demanding that we implement a British government policy, the sole purpose of which is to save money at the expense of the poor, of people with disabilities and the most vulnerable in our society. Not one vote was cast in the north of Ireland for those who make up the Tory-led coalition in London. We did not vote for welfare cuts. Cuts in welfare payments are not part of our Programme for Government. In fact the Tory cuts came like a hammer blow after our Programme for Government. These cuts would undermine all of the anti-poverty measures that we are committed to in our Programme for Government.

It is a right-wing, conservative agenda. It is a policy designed by millionaires in London who know nothing about surviving on a low income and who care even less for those who do.

It is a policy supported by politicians in the Assembly who also know nothing about surviving on a low income.

These Tory cuts are the antithesis of a caring, modern society which should protect its most vulnerable. In the Tory world, the rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to pay the price. In this Tory world people claiming benefits are targeted while billions of pounds are denied to the public purse through tax avoidance and tax evasion by the rich friends of the Tory party.

The Tory welfare programme is not about reform. It is about saving money at the expense of the poor. It is a Thatcherite agenda designed to dismantle the welfare state and punish the poorest and most disadvantaged in society.

In Britain the welfare system is in disarray and the cause of growing division and dissension within the coalition government.

Recently, in the context of the Scottish referendum debate, Alistair Darling declared his opposition to the welfare cuts.

Any decision by the Assembly on welfare cuts must be informed by the reality that a British general election might fundamentally change the British government’s approach to the welfare state. Or indeed, in advance of the Scottish referendum which will, whatever its outcome, change fundamentally the welfare and fiscal agenda for all of us.

The reality is that in Britain people have died as a result of these cuts. Like many people in this state others have been forced into homelessness, poverty, desperation and in some cases suicide.

The DUP needs to tell people, including many of their own voters, what they are facing into if welfare cuts are implemented. For example, in Britain by 2015, child benefits cuts will affect 7.5 million households who will lose an average of £370 per year. Cuts to child benefit will force more children into poverty.

In Britain, half a million people with disabilities will have their income reduced by an average of £3,000 per year forcing already vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals into greater hardship and suffering. These are the real, human consequences of welfare cuts.  Sinn Féin is totally opposed to this agenda.

We believe that the Assembly and the Executive should take our own decisions on these matters. We believe the Assembly and the Executive should have the power and the responsibility; and not just the responsibility.

The DUP, in contrast, have accepted this anti-working class agenda. Indeed, many in that party share the right-wing conservative ideology of the British Tory party.

So, let me be absolutely clear today so that David Cameron and his supporters in the Unionist parties understand fully my position.

Sinn Féin is absolute in our opposition to welfare cuts, north and south of the border.

Sinn Féin have attempted to persuade the other Executive parties to unite against these Tory cuts and to join with us in demanding the right to design a system which meets our needs as is now being promised to the Scottish people.

It is our primary duty to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

This is about choices for all the parties in the Assembly. We do have a choice. In Sinn Féin, we have made our choice. We reject this attack on the poor, people with disabilities and the most vulnerable in our society. We will defend and stand with the working class communities that the Tories are targeting.

If, for ideological reasons or in an attempt to curry favour with the Tories, the DUP wish to inflict these devastating cuts on working class unionists as well as the rest of us, then they can and should bring the legislation onto the floor of the Assembly, explain their support for Tory policies and let the representatives of the people decide. That’s what the Assembly is for, that is the democratic thing to do.

If Nelson McCausland on behalf of the DUP refuses to bring it to the floor of the Assembly, then the only other option is to put it directly to the people in an election. Sinn Féin has no fear of an election.

The DUP have of course thrown this issue up in recent weeks. In reality it is a smokescreen for the real threat to the institutions that results from the anti-agreement axis which emerged as a result of the failure of the DUP to show positive leadership.

This anti-agreement axis is opposed to inclusive, peaceful progress and the requirement for parity of esteem, mutual respect and reconciliation.

Earlier this week, The DUP asserted that we need a new negotiation.

I agree. Negotiations should be convened immediately by the two governments with the support and assistance of the US administration. The context must and will be the Good Friday Agreement which the Irish people democratically endorsed. In any negotiations Sinn Féin will defend that agreement and the institutions that flowed from it.

The reality is that political unionism and the DUP have repeatedly walked away from negotiations and from agreements already made. They reneged on the agreement on the development of the Maze/Long Kesh site. Unionists collectively rejected the democratic decision of Belfast city council on the flying of the union flag. When flag protesters took to the streets in violent protests, largely directed at the Alliance Party and the police, unionist leaders refused to stand shoulder to shoulder with me in condemning these loyalist protests and the accompanying violence, as I had done with them in condemning violence by dissident republicans. They rejected the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals and then walked out of party leaders talks because the Orange Order did not get its way in North Belfast.

The DUP refuse to accept the lawful determinations of the Parades Commission, established by the very parliament that they claim loyalty towards. The health minister questions the independence and impartiality of the justice system because he didn’t get the outcome he wants, a ban on gay men donating blood.

All of this demonstrates a dubious and questionable commitment by unionist leaders to negotiations, agreement and to democratic decision making. As I have said previously we are in government with our unionist colleagues because we want to be, they are in government with us not because they want to be but because they have to be.

Republicans have long recognised that negotiations and agreement required compromise in the best interests of all our people. Progress requires reconciliation and a willingness to respect our differing political perspectives and beliefs. I have attempted to reach out to the unionist population not least in my engagements with Queen Elizabeth.

But there has been little reciprocation from the leadership of unionism. Unionist leaders have singularly failed to reach out or to recognise and accept the validity of nationalist and republican perspectives, narratives and aspirations. Unionist politicians routinely excuse and defend racism, sectarianism and homophobia.

Racism, sectarianism and homophobia are totally and wholly unacceptable.

In stark contrast, I can say without any fear of contradiction that Sinn Féin has genuinely engaged in the process of reconciliation. And we have stood by and delivered on all agreements entered into, from Good Friday to the Hillsborough Agreement and the various Programmes for Government agreed by the Executive.

So the difficulties in the institutions arise from the refusal of unionism to engage in dialogue around difficult issues and from the failure to honour agreements reached. But more fundamentally damaging is the totally unrealistic desire of a section of political unionism to turn the clock back, to end power sharing and undermine the evolving equality agenda. This is nothing short of delusional.

There will be no return to the failures of the past.

Unfortunately, negative unionism has been encouraged in this view by a Tory-led government that has itself failed to deliver on commitments and agreements made, including an Acht na Gaeilge and the Bill of Rights and it failed to support the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals. This - and the courting of DUP MPs by the Tory leadership at Westminster - has encouraged and deepened unionist intransigence and moved unionism politically to the right.

It has become apparent that this British government has become part of the problem. This refusal by Downing St to fulfill its obligations highlights the urgent need for the Taoiseach to hold the British Government to account. The Irish government is co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. The Taoiseach needs to be a champion for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.

The DUP claim that the institutions are not fit for purpose. In reality the DUP are not fit for purpose. Just as unionists were not fit for purpose in 50 years of sectarian, one-party rule.

The days of repression, inequality and discrimination are gone forever.

The picture I paint here may seem to be a bleak one. But it need not be so. Everyone needs to appreciate the distance we have travelled out of conflict. Building peace is a process, the journey is not over.

But I retain great hope for the future. Political unionism may be sleep walking into a crisis but civic unionism, the business sector, the voluntary and community sector value the work that has been done and are focussed on the future.

That is Sinn Féin’s focus also. Whatever the current challenges and problems they can and will be overcome.

Sinn Féin is up for negotiations. We are willing to work with all the parties and the two governments to address outstanding issues and to build a process of reconciliation based on mutual respect.

I firmly believe that all the problems we face are surmountable that given the political will they can be resolved.

There is no going backwards. The way forward for all in our society is inclusion, equality and powersharing." 

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