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SF's art of saying one thing, doing another

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Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams

Watching left wing groups turn on one another is reminiscent of the famous scene in Life of Brian where the hero joins the People's Front of Judea, only to discover that their real enemy isn't the Romans, it's the rival Judean People's Front.

People Before Profit. Anti-Austerity Alliance. Socialist Party. The Workers and Unemployed Action Group. The 'Whatever You're Having Yourself, Mate' faction. There are more colourful labels on the left in Irish politics than there are on the shelves in Lidl, and woe betide any man who mixes up his socialists with his Trotskyites. Clannish to the last, that's why a split is always the first item on the agenda, and why the Left struggles to make inroads into real power as opposed to ideologically-pure opposition.

Their collective Achilles' heel is that they understand one another too well. When left wing firebrands go on the attack against bourgeois politics, throwing around words like "reactionary" and "neo conservative", it's obvious they don't grasp where the appeal of middle-ground politics lies.

They miss the target by condemning what annoys them about the centrists, rather than identifying what attracts people to the centre ground. Being contemptuous of wealth, for example, in a way which makes it obvious they don't understand the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people. The Left's pitch is always to take things off those who have plenty, rather than helping those who want more to get it.

When it comes to attacking one another, however, they know instinctively where all the buttons are, because they have the same ones. And they press them ruthlessly. Take independent TD Richard Boyd Barrett's masterly take down of Sinn Fein in the Dail last week.

He's never been a member of SF, but he squirrelled through their defences like an insider rather than an outsider as he dismantled the party's claim to be fighting austerity north and south when it recently signed the Stormont House Agreement, committing the Northern Ireland assembly to massive budget cuts.

"This is the equivalent of the Troika memorandum of understanding," Barrett said. "The intent is absolutely clear: to smash up the public sector, to prepare for the privatisation of state assets, to lay the ground for service charges, quite likely including water charges, and to attack the poor and vulnerable in terms of so-called welfare reform."

The agreement, now ratified by SF, sees cuts to welfare, which have been in place in mainland UK since the Tory-led government came to power in 2010, extended to the North. Up to 20,000 jobs are to go in the public sector, and 80,000 houses may have to be sold to private landlords as the power-sharing executive agrees to "realise the value of their capital assets".

Ulsterbus and Northern Ireland Rail may also have to go under the hammer. The key word is "efficiency", generally code for "slash and burn".

Welfare cuts must be fully implemented by 2016-17, which means slicing nearly a billion pounds from the eight billion annual budget for social protection. Changes to child benefit and housing benefit are already happening, and new Personal Independence Payments have been introduced, requiring sick claimants to take stricter, more frequent medical tests in order to remove them from the list.

The executive doesn't have to take this money from the welfare budget; local politicians have discretion as to where to make the cuts, but if they maintain current spending on welfare, then the block grant will be cut by an equivalent amount, meaning the money has to be found elsewhere. According to a recent research paper by the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, NI will, as a result, be the UK region worst affected by welfare cuts, with Belfast, Derry, and Strabane particularly hard hit.

There is more to come. Cuts worth billions more are to kick in before 2020, whoever wins the next Westminster election, meaning Stormont will have to fall into line again to produce a balanced budget.

Gerry Adams insists that "progress has been made in defending the most vulnerable", but in truth, most of the "new" money on offer isn't new at all, and what is new has mainly been sidelined for capital projects and "peace process" schemes to do with parades and the past.

The pay off is that the Stormont executive gets the power to set corporation tax rates in return for a balanced budget; but, even if it does so, the block grant will be correspondingly reduced, whilst the UK Treasury has to be compensated for any loss of income as a result of firms relocating to NI. Either way, SF in the North clearly intends to follow a pattern for economic growth which is largely about offering incentives to multinationals to set up and create jobs. That might be the most realistic option, but it's hardly the worker's paradise which SF is promising to bring about in the Republic.

SF argues that it had no other choice, and that may be so. Penalties were already being implemented by Westminster, and Stormont doesn't have the powers of a national government. But if SF won't even go to the wire with Tories in London, why should anyone believe they'd go toe to toe with the Troika or the EU after the next election in the face of equally severe budgetary constraints? Is it not more likely that the party will back down in the South, as it did in the North, in the name of "economic reality"?

The point is not whether cutting public spending is right or wrong, but about the hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. SF is simply following Labour's pattern of over-promising before an election, and under-delivering when in office, before blaming everyone else for failure. Partition is their best friend. The border created two parallel universes, each knowing little of what goes on in the other, and little attention is paid to the glaring contradictions.

Adams may have sent his best wishes to Alexis Tsipras ahead of the Greek elections, but SF has nothing in the way of a Syriza-style intent to stand up to the EU - and the Left in Ireland knows it. SF is not aiming to build a strong socialist alternative, it is simply manoeuvring to replace Labour as the mainstream vaguely leftish substitute. The Stormont House Agreement commits to a "more transparent and robust system for members' salaries and expenses", but there's no evidence the parties will be rushing to implement that part of the deal.

Sunday Independent