Northern Ireland spends about £22 billion each year on its public services. It raises £14 billion in taxes, with another £8 billion coming from the British government. Under direct rule from Westminster, all of this money is allocated and spent from London.
This subsidy amounts to more per head than Scotland or Wales. And the treasury is now pressing for Northern Ireland to start paying its own way. As well as the introduction of water charges, real cuts in public spending are on the way.
Peter Hain, New Labour’s Northern Ireland secretary, has warned that Northern Ireland’s levels of public expenditure are “simply not sustainable”. He refers to “the hugely wasteful costs of division in this society” — many public services are duplicated because of sectarian divisions, such as two schools in an area.
New Labour’s solution is to cut back, with big business calling the shots. “Two of the main issues preventing growth at present are political uncertainty and the overwhelming reliance on the public sectors,” says one Northern Ireland business leader.
“There is a essentially a garage sale of all the civil service buildings in Northern Ireland taking place,” one civil service worker told Socialist Worker.
“It was announced at the same time the IRA announced its decommissioning. They’re selling off the buildings and outsourcing security and services.
“The human resources section of the Northern Ireland civil service has been privatised. They are attacking jobs as part of the peace process.
“Leaders from all five main political parties appeared in a promotional video on Thursday last week to launch a campaign against poverty.
“Yet in reality the one thing that all these politicians agree with is that neo-liberalism is the solution for Northern Ireland.
“They all say they are against introducing water charges, but they will be happy if Labour brings them in.”
At the end of 2004 the Unionist DUP and Nationalist Sinn Fein put forward a joint proposal to obtain a £1 billion peace dividend.
The plan was put together on advice of the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce.
The proposal was to “encourage big multinationals to relocate” and to cut corporation tax.
Liam Gallagher, secretary of Derry trades council, says the current impasse in politics is “alienating working class people and driving them into the hands of paramilitaries”.
He adds, “Our public services are being sold off to the private sector, with the prevailing philosophy being that the private sector can deliver and manage our public services more efficiently and economically.
“I’ve never heard of a private employer whose motivation for getting out of bed in the morning is to promote the common good and to provide a public service.
“Quite the opposite, in fact — the private sector is in the business of making profits and that is their only motivating interest.”
As Mark, an anti-poverty campaigner in West Belfast, points out, “All the mainstream parties say they oppose water charges and privatisation. But all are equally opposed to a campaign of non-payment.
“Parties which are based on representing one community and not the other would be directly threatened by a campaign which mobilised people on a basis which has nothing whatsoever to do with what community they come from.
“This is why they all claim to be against water charges — but are unanimous in doing nothing about it.”