Northern Ireland: Assembly government carries out neo-liberal policies

Sectarian parties lower taxes for big business while hiking taxes for workers

The governing Executive and the Assembly have been in place for several months but are only now taking up the reins of government. Already it is clear that the new Executive will operate a right-wing, neo-liberal agenda.

For example, politicians from all the main parties agree that business pays too much tax and that working people do not pay enough. Sinn Fein made pretence of opposing tax reductions for business, for a time, but has now come into the fold and supports such reductions. Similarly, all the main parties agree that we are “too dependent” on the public sector and our salvation lies in private sector growth.

Attacks on working people

Prior to the summer, the Executive and Assembly [‘power-sharing’ N Ireland government] avoided making any major decisions, and instead played for time by establishing “reviews”. The key reviews are examining the cases for the introduction of water charges and changes to the rating system. These review bodies are due to report in the next few weeks.

These reviews are no more than a smoke screen. The main parties sing from the same hymn sheet as Thatcher-fan, Gordon Brown. They clearly intend to attack the living standards of working people. They will offer low tax rates and other incentives and bribes to businesses. They will implement higher taxes and charges for working people, will actively promote a low wage economy, and will shrink the public sector through job cuts and privatisation.

This, despite the fact that a recent report demonstrated that working people in Northern Ireland already pay more in taxation than their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.

A further round of privatisations of public assets is underway. Under, ‘Workplace 2010’ government buildings are being sold off and then rented back from private companies at exorbitant prices. More and more hospitals and school buildings are being built through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The new visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway [an official natural world heritage site in north Antrim] is being handed over to a private developer who happens to be a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is the largest ruling unionist party.

The key social issue facing the Executive in the next period is the imposition of water charges [taxes]. None of the Assembly parties have committed themselves to the abolition of water charges. They may come up with “concessions”, reducing the level of the charges, offering discounts to the very poorest, phasing them in over five or even ten years, or introducing meters more widely. Any such concessions will be unacceptable – water charges are unjustifiable, no matter what level they are set at.

The Executive will also have to deal with a number of industrial disputes, not least the impending strike of classroom assistants. These workers are paid a pittance and local politicians cannot deny their responsibility for this state of affairs.

Will the Executive last?

The analysis that says we are on the “threshold of a new era of stability and prosperity” is profoundly wrong. The Assembly and the Executive will always be shaky structures, full of contradictions and prone to collapse. The main parties are based on sectarian division and are united only in their support for neo-liberal policies.

For now, the parties in the Executive are committed to making it work. In particular, Sinn Fein and the DUP are seeking to avoid major confrontations, at this time. Every issue, especially issues around imminent cuts in the public sector, will become mired in the same sectarian quicksand however.

Events on the ground often dictate events at Stormont [the Assembly buildings]. There are, undoubtedly, fewer sectarian violent attacks and clashes than several years ago but this does not mean that sectarian division has lessened. There are more ‘peace lines’ [large concrete walls separating Catholic and Protestant working class residential areas] now than at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and a majority of the population now live in highly segregated areas. Sectarian conflict on the streets can explode, seemingly out of nowhere, and when it does it will rock the political structures.

The first major political crisis could bring the whole edifice crashing down. It is more likely however that it will stumble on for a period, perhaps even a prolonged period, but the reality of sectarian division on the ground will intrude into the corridors of power, again and again. The result will be an Executive divided and unable to function at times of crisis. Not exactly a recipe for stability.

Building an alternative

Working people cannot rely on the sectarian parties. Workers can only rely on their own strength. The imposition of water charges will be met by organized, mass non-payment in all areas. The defeat of water charges is entirely possible and will be a turning point in the struggle of working class people in Northern Ireland to check attacks on their rights and living standards and to overcome sectarian division.

Similarly, a victory in a major industrial dispute will lead to layers of workers drawing the conclusion that they have no major political party they can rely on. Out of such struggles, the first steps towards the creation of a mass working class, anti-sectarian party will be taken.

This article appears in the current edition of The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party (CWI) in Ireland

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September 2007