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Peter Hadden

Northern Assembly – we won’t accept excuses

(January 2000)

From Socialist Voice , Issue 19, January 2000.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The first items on the agenda of the Assembly were a 30% pay rise for members, an increase in their pensions, and then agreement to take a month break for Christmas. Now as the real business gets underway, and it becomes clear that there is no improvement in the lot of ordinary people being promised, the next task of the new ministers will be to come up with the excuses.

We already have had a taste of what will be said – “we have to work within the budget limits set by Westminster” or “we are restricted because we don’t have an all-Ireland economy or because services are not run on an all-Ireland basis”.

But if the ministers’ hands are really tied how can they justify salaries of £70,000–£102,000 a year? If the Assembly can bring about no real change how come it will cost more to run it and the associated office of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon than has been allocated for Culture, Arts and Leisure?

In fact the leading parties in the Executive are quite willing prisoners of the pro-market, anti working-class policies set by Westminster. The only question is whether all the other parties in the Assembly will swallow the excuses and whether the pressure for “consensus” politics will mean that there is no opposition.

In fact the whole system has been elaborately designed to create consensus. All the major parties are in the government. Beyond the Executive there are the committees which involve almost everyone else. If cross party agreement could be reached on these bodies it would leave the main Assembly chamber as little more than a tame rubber stamp.

Is it possible to be in opposition in the Assembly? If there were a socialist member what would he or she do? In the first place he or she would stand aside from the general consensus and would oppose the right-wing policies of the major parties. There would be no problem participating on any committee, provided that there was full freedom to criticise and oppose the policies of that committee and department.

A socialist member would refuse to bow to the excuses which pass the blame elsewhere. He or she would argue that the services provided by each department should be decided by assessing need, not by the financial limits imposed from Westminster.

There is a need for an equality agenda but this does not amount to much if it just means that we all end up equally poor. Departments should spend money to meet need and should then campaign by mobilising the working class to press for the money to be allocated.

A mass campaign demanding that hospitals remain open, that schools be built, that class sizes be cut would bring working class people, Catholic and Protestant, together. In turn this would be a real step to a solution to the Troubles, something which no amount of handshakes between people like David Trimble and Seamus Mallon will ever bring.

On other matters, for example workers’ rights and the minimum wage, the Executive’s excuse is that these are for Westminster to decide. A socialist would demand that the Assembly act on such issues.

There are voices coming from the business community demanding extra powers so that the Assembly can act in their interests. The First Trust Bank has called for tax varying powers – not to reduce basic taxes, but to bring about a tax trade-off, a 2% increase in income tax in exchange for “a lowering of profits tax from 20% to 15% or even lower”. If businessmen can demand new powers to uphold their interests why can’t the working class do the same?

Why could a minimum wage of £5 not be implemented now? Why not a policy that guarantees workers’ rights? And since there is the power to privatise the docks, water and other services, why not the power to take firms into public ownership?

Instead of bowing to the dictates of the banks why not take them into public ownership so that the huge profits they are making could be usefully reinvested in developing the economy and improving peoples’ lives?

An opposition socialist voice in the Assembly could mean that the disillusionment which will develop would take the form of mass united class opposition – not of renewed sectarianism.

There is no such voice there at the moment. We need to build that socialist voice on the outside at this stage in order to make sure that the arguments and excuses of the overpaid ministers do not go unanswered.

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Last updated: 24 September 2020