A DEAL between Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland was still hanging in the balance as Socialist Worker went to print.
Nevertheless, most observers believe it is no longer a question of if, but of when. Paisley may try to delay an agreement, but no one doubts the deal will eventually be done.
Most working people in the North want to see the return of the assembly, if only to stop New Labour from privatising everything that moves and introducing draconian water charges.
Through over 30 years of “the Troubles”, poverty and poor public services were blamed on the paramilitaries. “End the violence and everyone will have a better standard of living,” we were told.
Ten years after the IRA declared a ceasefire most people in Northern Ireland have seen their living standards fall, while a small layer at the top of society have had their incomes shoot up.
But while rising inequality underlies the desire to see the assembly restored, it is unlikely that a return to devolution will do anything to reverse those trends.
When in power, local political parties made little difference to the lives of working class people. The gap between rich and poor is greater here than anywhere else in these islands, and continued to grow under local rule.
The desire to restore the political institutions has diverted attention from asking how the assembly functioned and what, if anything, it actually achieved. But its record of delivery speaks for itself.
Without exception, the assembly parties coalesced around a centre-right position on the economy. The assembly’s “Programme for Government” elevated the right of investors to maximise profit above every other consideration, including workers’ rights.
All of the parties are committed to maintaining, if not increasing, direct grants to multinationals, and to a reduction in corporation and other taxes on business. Meanwhile they argue that any increase in the minimum wage would damage competitiveness.
And while the world’s media marvel at the “two extremes” of Sinn Fein and the DUP entering government together, there is little to divide the two parties on the economic front.
Both talk about issues like poverty. But when in government they did nothing to change things—except by making things worse. Both DUP and Sinn Fein ministers were responsible for privatising public services—and there is no sign of their attitudes changing.
For example, council workers in Derry say there is not a cigarette paper between Sinn Fein and the DUP when it comes to attacks on their wages and conditions.
Both parties unite to smear workers off sick due to the stress of their jobs as “malingerers”. Both parties unite to impose swingeing pay cuts for workers in the city’s leisure centres.
The ability of working people here to oppose the neo-liberal agenda is hugely undermined by sectarian division. While services are privatised and wages driven down, politicians focus on issues like decommissioning, policing and which flags to fly.
For example, at the end of last May 300 textile industry jobs were destroyed in Derry. At their next meeting city councillors spent half an hour debating the job losses, then two hours arguing about whether the city should be called Derry or Londonderry.
Socialists predicted that the Belfast agreement would institutionalise
sectarianism—and it has. The number of “peace lines” and “interface areas”, where sectarian tensions and violence are high, has grown since 1998.
Alienation in working class areas results in continued sectarian tensions, and a growth in racist and homophobic attacks.
Socialists want to offer an alternative to this alienation. We want to turn the anger against the government and political parties, and bring some hope back. The Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA) seeks to provide an alternative to communal division.
The SEA is a broad coalition of grassroots activists. It challenges the pro-privatisation, business driven, environmentally damaging agenda accepted by the major local parties and direct rule ministers, and the sectarian basis of the political set-up here.
Despite elections here being dominated by communalism, the SEA has had credible electoral results and is planning to stand again in next year’s local elections to fight over these issues.
Save the Children’s research about severe child poverty in Northern Ireland, highlighted recently in the Guardian, shocked many people when it revealed that 32,000 children go hungry here on a regular basis.
Every other child in Northern Ireland is living on or below the poverty line. Government statistics say 32 percent of children live in households that are totally dependent on benefits, as compared to 19 percent in Britain.
Since 1997 life has become a lot harder for people trying to bring up a family on benefits. Prices for fuel and food have risen steeply. But income support and Jobseeker’s allowance have increased by less than £1 a week each year.
The effect of poverty on a child’s life chances is devastating. According to the North’s Department of Health, children living in poverty are 15 times more likely to die as a result of a house fire. They are four times more likely to die before the age of 20.
A child born into the richest fifth of the population in Northern Ireland has a life expectancy among the best in Europe. But for one born into the poorest fifth life expectancy is closer to that in Eastern European countries.
The government’s answer is for parents to get a job. But, as in Britain, there is a real scarcity of jobs in many parts of Northern Ireland, despite an official unemployment rate of about 5 percent.
Remember the 18 changes Margaret Thatcher made to how the numbers of unemployed are counted? Well, New Labour “forgot” to change them back. As a result, real levels of unemployment can only be estimated.
The Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion calculates a “slack workforce” figure by parliamentary constituency. This includes everyone looking for work, including those on government training and work schemes.
Based on these figures, we know a quarter of the workforce in West Belfast and Derry are unable to find work. Long term unemployment is considerably more common than in Britain, with 52 percent of unemployed men out of work for a year or more.
Most unemployed people would love to get a job, despite all the propaganda about “dole scroungers”. This was demonstrated vividly in Derry last year—a recruitment campaign by Debenhams department store drew 6,000 applicants for 250 jobs!
In any case, a job only gets people out of poverty if it pays decent wages. Unfortunately such jobs are few and far between here.
Northern Ireland is explicitly promoted to foreign direct investors as a low wage economy. For example, the Invest NI website tells overseas companies that wages are “up to 32 percent lower than in the US and 25 percent lower than the EU average”.
As a result, the government’s own research shows that half of all children below the poverty line live in families where at least one adult is in employment. This confirms what a lot of trade unionists have been saying for some time—that there has been an increase in poverty among those in work, especially in one-worker households.
When you look at wage rates you can see why living standards are going down, not up, for so many working people. Three quarters of all manual workers here are earning under £350 a week. Some 38 percent earn under £250 a week.
Of course there are those whose living standards are rising. Forty percent of non-manual workers earn more than £450 a week. And 10 percent get more than £707 a week.
But these figures refer only to full time employees on adult rates. They don’t include the real rich, whose wealth comes from property, share ownership and dividends.
Nor do they include the desperately poor, such as part time employees, often lone parents, at the mercy of employers and forced to “do the double” (sign on and work at the same time) to survive.
As benefits fell in real terms under New Labour, many lone parents in Britain had to get paid employment. But that option simply isn’t open to most lone parents in the North.
Apart from the lack of jobs, the main obstacle for lone parents who want a paid job is the lack of childcare. Northern Ireland has some of the worst provision of childcare, not only within the UK, but in Europe as a whole.
Equality Commission research has confirmed there is very little childcare, and what is available is very expensive. It also pointed to the specific disadvantage faced by lone parents here, as their earnings are about one third lower than the UK average for lone parents.
So even if their parent does get a job it is not always enough to get a child out of poverty. And much available work is short term, often agency work, paid at the minimum wage or not much above. This means many families end up back on benefit within a year or less.
Northern Ireland’s public services are being sold off at an alarming rate, and this has made poverty even worse. Many workers are transferred from the public sector to the private as a result of PFI. They find that undertakings to protect their wages and conditions are quickly torn up.
On paper the North has some of the best equality legislation in Europe. But the impact of privatisation on gender equality is completely ignored. For example manual women workers in the private sector earn three quarters of their counterparts’ wages in the public sector.
Goretti Horgan is a researcher on poverty for the University of Ulster. She is also a director of the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network
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