Northern Ireland: Political sleaze scandal in governing party

‘Power sharing’ Assembly government budget introduces deep cuts

The resignation of Ian Paisley junior as a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) minister in the Northern Ireland Executive [local government cabinet], follows months of intense speculation over the nature of his relationship with Seymour Sweeney, a millionaire property developer based in North Antrim.

A Pandora’s box was opened, last September, when DUP ministers revealed that they were ‘minded’ to give permission to a private developer to build a visitors’ centre at the North Antrim World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, even though millions had already been spent on developing a publicly funded project.

Seymour Sweeney, the developer behind this prestigious bid, had the support of Ian Paisley junior, who it now transpires ‘lobbied’ on his behalf for many developments.

When quizzed about his relationship with Sweeney, Paisley junior initially replied he merely “knew of him”. It then quickly emerged that not only was Sweeney a local member of the DUP but he was also a close associate of the Paisleys.

Paisley junior even used his position during the crucial peace process talks at St Andrew’s in October 2006 to demand action on a list of commercial projects in his constituency linked to Sweeney. Tony Blair replied, in a letter released under the Freedom of Information act, that he would “look positively” at his requests.

The stench of sleaze has not only damaged Paisley junior, but also his father, the First Minister, Ian Paisley senior – a leader of hard-line Unionism for decades, before he entered a power sharing government with Sinn Fein. It has now emerged that the Paisleys are claiming £62,500 a year from public funds for rental costs of their constituency offices in Ballymena town, which happen to be owned by a company called Sarcon 250. And guess who happens to be the sole director of this company? None other than Seymour Sweeney; what a coincidence!

Leadership crisis

It is also now likely an official investigation will be carried out by the parliamentary standards commissioner into Ian Paisley senior for using part of his Westminster allowance to employ Ian junior as a ‘researcher’ on a salary of £9,000 to £11,000 a year, on top of the £62,000 he receives as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and junior minister.

The resignation of Paisley junior, to the clear delight of many senior DUP figures, has led to much speculation over the leadership of the party, with some commentators stating Paisley senior could be removed as leader as early as May.

The sleaze scandals which have hit Westminster have now forced politicians in all the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to reveal how they have used their positions to secure income for family members, through jobs and rents for properties they own. One MLA has even claimed expenses for the cost of rent of a portacabin on his own farm!

These revelations (at a time when it is being proposed that MLAs receive a 16% pay increase, while one in four children officially live in poverty), have reinforced a hatred amongst working-class people towards the politicians.

Despite the tensions between the sectarian parties in the Assembly, their neo-liberal budget has shown they are united in attacking working-class communities and supporting big business.

The need to build a socialist alternative, which can unite workers and youth against the right-wing policies of the sectarian parties, has never been greater.

Executive means low pay and poverty

The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, in Northern Ireland, widened hugely, over the past few years. According to a recent report from the Assembly, the percentage of children living in poverty has increased to 23%.

A shocking 100,000 children live below the poverty line [the total N Ireland population is estimated to be 1,710,300 (2004 figures)]. 44,000 children are officially living in severe poverty. In contrast, the rich have accumulated huge fortunes. Since 2004, the top ten richest individuals in the North have seen their combined wealth increase by more than 300% to over £6 billion. While the rich have gotten richer, the poor have become poorer.

Between 2003 and 2006, the highest paid individuals in Northern Ireland received a pay rise of £3.34 per hour, but the low paid only received an increase of just 46p! In just three years, the richest received over seven times more in pay increases than those on low pay.

The effect of this polarisation of wealth has led to an increase in fuel poverty and deprivation. Between 2004 and 2006, the number of those not able to afford to heat their homes leaped by 12% to 210,000 households, representing 36% of all homes in Northern Ireland. Living in cold and damp homes can lead to serious conditions such as strokes, coronary heart disease, asthma and respiratory illnesses.

More than 2,000 people die each year from being unable to afford to heat their homes. Those who do manage to pay their fuel bills often find themselves making cuts in other areas. 15% of homes either cut back on food or essential clothing to pay rising fuel bills. This process has taken place during a time of growth in the economy. All the gains of this growth however have gone in one direction – to the wealthy at the expense of working and unemployed people. However, the economic forecast reveals a far darker picture. The sliding of the US economy into recession now threatens to drag the world economy down with it. The consequences for workers across the world will be enormous. Those who are to blame for this crisis – the super-wealthy and big business – will not suffer however. They will act to make working class and poor people pay the price though job losses, attacks on pay and conditions and cuts in services.

The Northern Ireland economy has begun to feel the pinch already. Pro-capitalist commentators, who not that long ago naively predicted buoyant economic growth under devolution, are now forced to recognise Northern Ireland cannot escape a global downturn. The private sector in Northern Ireland has just recorded negative growth in December 2007 and January 2008, already resulting in job losses. The impact a recession will have on public finances will also bring further attacks on public services and wages. All the parties in the Assembly accept the market madness of capitalism. The privatisation agenda and job cuts contained within the budget agreed by the Assembly will further erode the living standards of working class people. What is needed is a socialist alternative, which can unite workers and young people to defend their conditions and fight for a socialist society where people’s needs come before profit for the rich few.

Assemby’s right-wing budget must be fought

There has been much huffing and puffing in Stormont [the parliament buildings] over the Northern Ireland Budget, but the MLAs (Member of the Legislative Assembly) need not fear any house being blown down. The antics of the SDLP [Social and Democratic Labour Party – right wing Nationalist party] have revealed astonishing hypocrisy.

After congratulating their sole Minister, Margaret Ritchie, for voting in favour of the budget at the Executive table, SDLP MLA’s opportunistically proceeded to vote against the budget, knowing only too well that there was no chance it would be defeated.

Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, cited the imminent introduction of water charges, as well as other issues, as reasons for voting against the budget. But it was Durkan who, as former Minster for Finance, agreed to introduce water charges and to privatise the water service in the last Assembly, in 2002. ‘Opposition’ also came from the Alliance Party because of the lack of a mention of “a shared future” [the Alliance Party is a middle class, ‘liberal Unionist’ party] True, there has been no attempt in this budget to, for example, promote integrated education [non-religious schooling for both Catholic and Protestants]. However, the Alliance party does not object to the fundamental economics of the budget. Alliance spokesman, Stephen Farry, illustrated his party’s position clearly when he stated on TV that he was not opposed to taking tough decisions as he “has voted for school closures” in the past. 

In fact, this budget is a continuation of the neo-liberal policies contained within the last budget, presented by Durkan, in 2001 [after this, the Assembly was suspended by the British government for several years, before a new deal saw Sinn Fein and the DUP come to power as the two largest governing parties]. The new budget represents further attacks on public services, job cuts, privatisation and hand-outs to big business, but this time with the DUP and Sinn Fein jointly wielding the axe. Every government department will see cuts through 5% “efficiency” savings on administration costs, on top of 3% savings on resource budgets, over the next three years. These so-called efficiency targets will lead to thousands of jobs being lost and further cuts in much needed services.

700 jobs in the Social Security Agency (SSA) are to go, which will lead to people having to wait longer to receive benefits. The SSA is already struggling to cope after 674 jobs were lost during the last ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’. Other departments will see big job losses. The Department of Education will see 300 job cuts, Northern Ireland Housing Executive 400 jobs losses and the Roads Service will see 239 jobs cut. Apart from cuts resulting from the “efficiency” targets, an estimated 1,700 jobs are to go, as a result of the Review of Public Administration (RPA) and the Comprehensive

Spending Review

Cuts will have devastating effects on the poorest sections of society. The tragic rise in suicides in Northern Ireland led to parents demanding action be taken and resources provided to assist those vulnerable to poor mental health. This budget will see 500 less staff in Community Health Care than recommended by the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability. Other plans, such as to expand local self-harm mentoring schemes and measures to cut hospital waiting times are in doubt.

Other services under attack, include libraries, which will effectively see a 2% cut in funding, Youth Service which provides educational assistance to young people who are outside the school system will see a budget cut of 4.8%, this year, and social care. The ‘extra’ money given to supply social housing will only provide 5,250 homes, which is nowhere near what is needed to solve the housing crisis. Housing waiting lists are at their highest level ever – 20,000 households are in housing stress, while 9,573 homeless people are awaiting housing.

The so-called extra money for health is a mirage. In reality, the increase in funding since the draft budget is 0.1%. This means health will see an increase of 3.9% compared to rises of 6% during the 90s. And this funding is conditional on the 3% efficiency targets being met!

There are winners in this budget though. A huge figure of £18bn will be handed to big business over the next 10 years, through the Strategic Investment Board’s programme of privatisation of public services. A further £40m will be used to subsidise private companies through the funding of research at Northern Ireland universities.

The details of water charges [taxes] have yet to be agreed by the Executive, but it is clear that they will be introduced next year, in some form. It also cannot be ruled out that more cuts could be added to this budget, as the ‘perfect storm’ of the US recession hits the finances of the London Treasury. A recession in the British economy will be disastrous for the Northern Ireland economy and real pressure will come to cut the financial subvention the Assembly receives from London.

This neo-liberal budget, and the lack of any genuine opposition in the Assembly, raises the urgent need for the building of a socialist alternative. This can organise working class communities to fight these cuts and challenge the right-wing political consensus of the sectarian parties.

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February 2008