United campaign needed for increased block grant - Declan Kearney

7 March, 2015

Sinn Féin is jointly committed with the Irish Trade Union Movement to shared values of equality, social justice, democratic rights and solidarity.

At times we have differed in analysis and policy; but disagreement has not inhibited sustained engagement and dialogue between us.

That is how to achieve consensus and agree the strategic alliances which will deliver a transformation of Irish society, guaranteeing economic growth and prosperity.

Today that vision is challenged by the onslaught of austerity which transcends both states and the sectarian divide in the north.

The union movement has played an important role in the Peace and political processes.

In particular during last year, the leaderships of ICTU and nic-ICTU helped mobilise the significant influence of the international trade union movement, and to refocus the British Labour Party on the deepening political impasse.

Since 2010 the current British government has reduced the northern block grant in real terms by £1.5billion.

Throughout 2014 that cut began to impact most severely on Executive expenditure, in parallel with the Tories’ assault on the welfare state in the north.

An effective tsunami of austerity converged with the worsening political situation.

These combined to create a perfect storm backdrop to the Stormont negotiations.

Sinn Féin’s negotiations objective was a comprehensive financial, welfare and political agreement.

We sought a multi-billion pounds investment programme, with uplift for the block grant, and entrenched welfare protections.

Other parties did not share our approach.

Had others; including the Irish government, negotiated harder there could have been a comprehensive Agreement.

The Stormont House Agreement was a hard compromise outcome.

But, it has re-established political stability. 

If all parties remain faithful to its implementation, the limited new investment and flexibilities will protect the most vulnerable; ensure there will be no cuts to benefits under the control of the Assembly; and, help defend core frontline services.

It can provide a beach head from which to continue opposing British Tory austerity policies.

Make no mistake:

The alternative to this Agreement was a collapse of the political institutions, and a setback for the Peace Process.

That is the context for the recent budget.

Its financial limits were predetermined by the block grant reduction.

The restrictions on public expenditure were not decided by the Executive. 

These were imposed by the British Exchequer’s “Minister for Misery”, George Osborne. 

The northern Executive is not the architect of austerity in this state.

Nonetheless, Sinn Féin successfully proposed uplifts for core frontline services. 

Sinn Féin negotiated welfare protections for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

No other parties argued for that approach.

Our strategic decision was to reallocate from the reduced block grant to fund those priorities.

We make no apology for making opposition to welfare cuts a line this Party would not cross.

And this remains a red line issue in terms of implementation.

That’s what Connolly or Mellows would have done.

But be sure of this:

Voting down the recent budget meant surrendering full control of the north’s finances back to the Tories, and letting them impose even worse austerity.

Like SYRIZA, Sinn Féin faces an ideologically driven, pro-austerity and stronger power bloc.

Unlike SYRIZA, some of our Executive partners are in fact compromised by, or actually support austerity policies.

The lazy narratives and impossibilist agendas peddled by some ignore the unacceptable economic and fiscal realities of the north.

This Party supports equality and opposes austerity.

We see no contradiction in promoting enterprise and seeking democratic control of the economy.

The north’s economy needs to be restructured, with a strategy to grow the private sector, and through proper investment in public services.

Corporation tax taken in isolation is not an economic solution.

We need a regional economic plan, based upon full transfer of all fiscal powers, sustainable investment, welfare protection, and decent work.

Last December prior to the Stormont Agreement, the northern unions began preparations for strike action. 

Their focus then, was against the Tory cuts and austerity.

That should remain their focus when they strike next week.

Trade union action, alongside community opposition, and political pressure are all required to democratically resist the inequalities of austerity.

We need to face outwards and campaign for an increased block grant and an enhanced public expenditure settlement.

Next week’s strike should support that political objective.

Sinn Féin will continue to build upon our ongoing and fraternal relations with the union movement in the north.

Our Party leadership and Executive Ministers are committed to working closely with local trade unions, and others, to oppose austerity, and secure a fair economic recovery.

Social solidarity is vital.

The alternative is to be pushed into a race to the bottom.

Sinn Féin rejects that scenario.

The way forward is through partnership for reconstruction and reconciliation.

Every sector and section of northern society should unite with the local Executive and develop an agreed agenda for social and economic recovery.