Northern Ireland Assembly elections: Launching a socialist challenge

The Socialist Party has decided to challenge the right wing and sectarian parties by putting up two candidates for the Assembly. Voters in East and South Belfast will have the chance to elect someone who will fight to defend the common interests of working class people and to break the logjam of sectarian politics.

South Belfast – Jim Barbour

Jim Barbour, who represents Northern Ireland’s fire fighters on the Executive of the Fire Brigades Union, is running in South Belfast.

Jim, who is one of the best known trade unionists in Northern Ireland, has lived in South Belfast almost all his life and has been active in the trade union movement for 20 years.

Jim explained why he is standing: "I have helped lead fire fighters through a difficult dispute over pay and against government attempts to run down and eventually part privatise the fire service. This dispute is by no means over.

But the fire service is not the only public service under attack. Schools, hospitals, transport, water and other services are threatened with cuts and privatisation and those who work in them find their conditions being eroded.

"The battle against this has to be fought politically as well as industrially. If elected, I will act with the same resolve to defend public services as I have fought for the fire service.

"Water charges are the latest burden being imposed on working class people. I am an organiser of the South Belfast Anti Water Charges Campaign and I intend to make this a key issue in the election."

East Belfast – Tommy Black

Tommy Black, a trade union and community activist in East Belfast, will be standing in that constituency.

Tommy, who lives in the Newtownards Road area, is the chairman of the East Belfast Water Charges "We won’t pay" Campaign. He is the former Chair of the Walkway Community Group.

Tommy is a school caretaker working in Ashfield Girls’ High School and is a union rep. for education workers in NIPSA. Commenting on his decision to run Tommy said.

"It was working class people who created the peace process by coming onto the streets demanding a halt to paramilitary activity. The sectarian parties have made a mess of this opportunity.

"Unless we can put this right it will be working class people on both sides – the people who live in areas like the Short Strand and the Newtownards Road – who will pay the price.

"We need to build a genuine peace process by bringing the people in the working class communities together to fight sectarianism and poverty.

"It is time that the common interests of workers were represented in the Assembly. It is time that we started to build a new working class party that will fight to defend the interests of trade unionists, of the deprived communities, and of young people."

A workers’ wage

Assembly members are completely out of touch with the problems of ordinary people. How could it be otherwise given the huge salaries and allowances, not to mention the other income many of them have?

Jim Barbour and Tommy Black will not take these inflated salaries but will continue to live on a workers’ wage. Jim is campaigning on the slogan "A worker’s voice – on a firefighter’s wage".

They will donate the rest of their Assembly salary to the socialist, trade union and community movements, including the campaign to defeat the water charges in which both are heavily involved.

Assembly members get œ41,321 plus allowances of over œ50,000 plus perks. The Chairs and Deputy Chairs of Assembly committees get a further œ10,290.

Half a million people – 185,000 households – in Northern Ireland live in poverty. 37.4% of children are growing up in poverty. 21% of total household income is from state benefits, compared to 12% for the UK.

Over the last 12 months when the Assembly was suspended, the MLAs still got œ31,617.

Workers in Shorts, the Shipyard, the textile industry and the many others who lost their jobs in this period got the dole. Richardsons’ workers even lost most the pension entitlement their contributions had paid for.

During the suspension, a childcare allowance continued to be paid to MLAs.

67% of lone parent families live in poverty, most unable to afford childcare to allow them to work.

OK, David Trimble has reminded us we can eat fish and chips just like people in London, Manchester – or Dublin come to that.

What he didn’t tell us is that we have to pay more for the privilege. The cost of food here is about 14% more than in Britain.

And it’s not just food that costs more. Electricity is around 18% dearer. Gas costs 31.6% more than in England. Petrol is 3p per litre dearer. Car insurance for most people will work out at an extra œ200 per year.

But wages are lower, much lower in fact. The average gross household income here is 22% less than across the water. In plain terms, that means that households have about œ100 per week less to spend.

Yet the justification that the politicians give for water charges and increased rates is that we have to pay the same local taxes as people in England. After all we are "simply British"!

We would all be a lot better off if the energy that the major political parties put into trying squeeze extra taxes out of us were put into fighting to bring wages up and prices down to the levels that apply in England.

The "in"-equality agenda

The idea of an equality agenda has become a bit of catchphrase during the peace process. It goes without saying that the Socialist Party and our candidates are totally opposed to any form of discrimination, whether on the basis of religion, race, nationality or gender.

The DUP. SDLP, UUP and Sinn Fein may have talked about equality, but, during their period in power, real inequality, that is the gap between rich and poor, actually widened.

Between 1998/90 and 2002/3, roughly the period when they were in office, inequality increased according to the most widely used measure, from 38 to 42.

The richest 40% of households have 67% of the total household income while the poorest 40% have only 17%.

It is true that the gap in jobs and income between Protestant and Catholic has narrowed over the last two decades. But this is as much to do with the collapse of the manufacturing base and the growth of low income sweatshop jobs as is due to any real improvement in the lot of Catholic working class people.

It seems that the "equality" agenda simply means that things are OK if working class people are equally poor.

A socialist solution

The conflict here will never be resolved so long as the search for a solution is left to the right wing and sectarian parties.

It is anger at poverty, low wages, inadequate services that underlies the conflict. The right wing parties are only capable of delivering more of the same.

The Socialist Party is campaigning for a real peace process based on uniting working class people in the struggle for a socialist society.

We want to link this struggle here with the similar struggle of workers in the South and in Britain. When we build a decent society in which poverty and want are things of the past, resolving where lines are drawn on a map will be an easy matter. We advocate a free and voluntary socialist federation of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales as part of a European socialist confederation.

This article first appeared in the Socialist Voice, newspaper of the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland in a special supplement produced for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in November 2003

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November 2003