Friday, 29 May 2015

A Matter of Choice

The Irish literary giant, George Bernard Shaw, wryly observed: “Put an Irishman on the spit and you can always find another Irishman to turn him.” His remark came to mind as Stormont MLAs debated the ill-fated Welfare Reform Bill earlier this week.

The inability of our various politicians to reach agreement on such a crucial issue has exasperated the public. And MLAs’ frustration with each other exploded in sniping recrimination on The Nolan Show the following evening, when even the normally even-tempered Roy Beggs became animated and agitated. The East Londonderry MP and MLA Gregory Campbell put up by far the most impressive performance, jabbing at his nationalist opponents and even locking horns with a woman in the audience. So, how come I’m not convinced by the DUP’s case?

Well, first of all, it’s not the DUP’s case. The DUP voted against the Conservatives’ welfare agenda at Westminster and argued for local mitigating measures in their dealings with the last government. Remarkably, Stormont’s largest party have since become the most vocal cheerleaders for welfare ‘reform’ and, in the process, the debate here has degenerated into one of ‘Orange versus Green’.

The DUP would have us believe their conversion was a matter of realpolitik. This is, we shouldn’t forget, an ideological battle between right and left. But it is also about right and wrong.

What has disappointed me has been the failure of many opponents of the Welfare Reform Bill to present any persuasive case against it. That has resulted in the perverse spectacle of some people – who will quite possibly bear the brunt of George Osborne’s so-called ‘reforms’ – defending his policies.

There is so much wrong with the Tory case that I hardly know where to begin. For starters, the idea of being lectured about fiscal probity and financial rectitude by people who have struggled with their parliamentary expenses beggars belief. 

Those who’ve swallowed the Conservative line have coined a new cliche – the “money-tree” – with which to belittle opponents. Would this be the same money tree, I wonder, which Amazon and Starbucks scrumped off for years? And we’ve had the usual off-stage mutterings from Tory supporters about the “need to live within our means”. These people really should be given a mirror.

Osborne’s brutal assault on welfare is being presented as ‘the only option’ when, in fact, it was – and remains – a choice. It is a very deliberate choice. I can’t make up my mind whether the DUP’s change of heart is a surrender or a genuine conversion.

There is no gainsaying the challenging state of the UK finances. It is true, too, that there is only so much money “in the kitty”. Demand is infinite while resources are finite. But that requires decisions to be made about how those limited resources are to be spent; how outstanding resources – unpaid taxes – are to be collected; which parts of our public services deserve to be protected; and which people should be expected to shoulder the burden.

In a very crude way, the choice is between targeting the rich or the poor.

Osborne has opted for the latter. He has trained his sights on the one million people on zero-hours contracts and the one million who eat out of food banks, rather than on the rich and the mega-rich. People like Harriet Green – the former Thomas Cook boss who will get an estimated £10m bonus this summer – must be laughing all way to the bank. And don’t start me on bankers.

The choice is between targeting those on benefits or those in mansions.

Benefit fraud costs the state about £1.2bn a year (less than the £1.5bn of benefits which go unclaimed by people entitled to them). In the year to April 2013 the ‘tax gap’ – the difference between the estimated tax owed and the amount actually collected – was £34bn. Coincidentally, in 2013 Amazon paid around £4.2m in tax in the UK, despite racking up more than £4bn in sales here.

The choice is between targeting welfare or warfare.

Can a UK – which has to “live within its means” – afford to replace a weapons system it will almost certainly never deploy? The Trident nuclear weapon system will cost an estimated £100bn over 30 years if MPs decide to replace it. One Labour MP has dismissed it as “a useless, hugely expensive virility symbol which will never be used”.

Our hospitals certainly will be used over the next 30 years. So will our schools and universities, our roads and railways. The list goes on. And so will the hardship.

Make no mistake: this debate is about choice. It would have been remarkable if – having campaigned so vigorously against the Tories’ welfare ‘reform’ plans recently – Sinn Féin and the SDLP had then chosen to implement them. Their supporters, and the victims, would have been outraged. Remember what Nelson Mandela said: “Where you stand depends on where you sit”.

With welfare ‘reform’ here paralysed (for the moment), our Executive deadlocked and Stormont in crisis again, the Secretary of State has entered the fray. America fought a revolution over ‘taxation without representation’. Here, we’re going to suffer devastation at the hands of a government whose entire mandate in Northern Ireland could fit comfortably into Windsor Park (even with its reduced capacity).

That’s what I call a democratic deficit. You have to admire Theresa Villiers’ chutzpah, though, coming in to administer Conservative rule in the most Tory-repellent region of the UK.

So what happens next? I haven’t the foggiest idea. We still don’t know the full extent of welfare ‘reform’. That may become clear on July 8th when the Chancellor delivers his emergency budget, with its expected £12bn in additional welfare cuts. The Twelfth week is shaping up to be even more interesting than usual.

With our politicians getting twitchy (an improvement on apoplectic), Mrs Villiers is cautioning against any rush to judgement. We all need to “reflect carefully” on the way forward, she suggests. Will ‘careful reflection’ persuade her to snatch welfare powers back from Stormont, possibly precipitating the collapse of the Stormont institutions? Your guess is as good as mine.

I will leave you with one final thought. Three years after the Second World War had ended – while the UK economy was in severe difficulty and rationing was still in place – the British government founded the National Health Service. There would have been many, I’m sure, who would have counselled against it and claimed it was unaffordable.

On careful reflection, though, it was the right thing to do. Yes it has proved costly (it continues to devour resources), but it has been – and remains – something worth protecting, a price worth paying. Established in the most challenging of times and in the most difficult of circumstances, the NHS was a tangible statement about the kind of society we should aspire to: a compassionate one, a more civilised one, a fairer one.

Hard though it is to believe, right now, we can still achieve that. That’s real aspiration. It’s a matter of choice.

As regards George Bernard Shaw’s spit-roasted Irishman, it would seem that on this occasion – just like ‘The Lady’ – some Irishmen and women are not for turning.     

Friday, 15 May 2015

Blindingly Obvious

Whatever Nigel Farages qualities, his major flaw, according to UKIP colleague Patrick OFlynn, is that he has become a snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive man. That perception didnt deter almost four million people from voting for UKIP at the recent general election.

On first reading, it was a far more successful election for the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. His party managed to retain its three Westminster seats three times as many as UKIP but Dr McDonnell’s reward has been a determined heave against his leadership.

If theres one charge you cannot lay against him it is that of being thin-skinned. The South Belfast MP must have a hide like a rhinoceros to insist on clinging onto the SDLP leadership after this weeks assaults on his authority.

The party which prides itself on its contribution to the peace process now finds itself embroiled in a civil war. McDonnell has spurned Seamus Mallons advice to resign as quickly as possible – “it would be good for him and good for the party” – opting instead to hang on and dig in.

Dr McDonnell insists the vast majority of SDLP members want him to remain as leader. That is a dubious claim in view of the personalities arrayed against him Claire Hanna, John Dallat, Mallon, Brid Rodgers and now Mark Durkan. In any case, support within the party is irrelevant. Its the electorate who count.  

No one can take away what McDonnell has achieved in the three and a half years he has been at the helm: reorganisation; an influx of young new blood; more women. But one issue cropped up time and time again for SDLP canvassers during the Westminster campaign: their partys leader. The bull in a china shophas become an issue for potential voters.

Dr McDonnell is right about one thing this is not a silly personality contest or beauty contest”. Its far more important than that. It is now a battle for the very future of the SDLP. As Councillor Hanna pointed out: This is a do or die; its ‘fight or flightfor the SDLP for the next twelve months”.

I suspect Hanna is being optimistic about the timeframe. Her party faces another election in less than a year and cannot afford to go into that campaign led by a man who has been criticised so publicly by so many of his colleagues.

Former leader Mark Durkan told the BBC programme, The View, last night that people wanted to see the DUP-Sinn Féin leadership at Stormont challenged in a cogent, competent way, in a passionate way. That is a withering, implicit criticism of McDonnells stewardship.

The party has to define what it stands for now. Should it remain tethered to an Executive which treats it with such disrespect? Should it be inextricably linked to budgets of which it is so critical? Would it be more credible and more popular in an opposition role at Stormont? These are huge issues which need to be resolved quickly.

The Antrim Glens man had an embarrassing first party conference as leader when he was dazzled by the conference hall lights during his leaders address. Those who care about him should hope he wont be blind or deaf now to the personalities and voices urging him to go. 

Claire Hanna is correct. This does look like 'do or die' for the SDLP. The patient is in poor shape. I wonder what a doctor would prescribe?