Posted on November 26, 2015 at 11:19 AM

Peter Bunting - Peter Bunting addresses the 2015 ETUC Conference on situation in Northern Ireland
Peter Bunting
Peter Bunting addresses the 2015 ETUC Conference on situation in Northern Ireland

Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting outlines initial reactions to the Fresh Start Agreement in Northern Ireland

On  November 17, the Fresh Start agreement was signed off by the UK and Irish governments and the two largest parties on the Northern Ireland Executive.

At the time of writing, the trade union movement in Northern Ireland is consulting with political parties, other civil society organisations and our affiliates.

The agreement has the support of the US Administration and every business group has welcomed it, especially as it includes a pledge to cut Corporation Tax to the same level as that which obtains in the Irish Republic by 2018 (although, as is well known, the effective CT rate paid by several multinationals is considerably less than the 12.5% headline rate.  

The main obstacle to last winter’s Stormont house Agreement was welfare, and that has been dealt with as quickly as possible by the simple expedient of suspending the Assembly’s right to exercise devolved power over the administration of social security and letting Westminster pass the legislation.

Let us be clear: The NI Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) is not looking for special privileges over other regions of the UK on welfare.

But we are making the case that the welfare state in NI has to take into consideration the legacy of the conflict. For example, the higher rate of DLA claimants is concentrated in areas (such as North and West Belfast) which witnessed the worst of the ‘troubles’.

At the beginning of the Haass talks in 2013 Congress submitted to all parties and the three governments, a paper which identified six reasons why Northern Ireland requires additional funding and not austerity.

Mental health problems are higher than in the rest of the UK, with enormous concentrations in areas close to the ‘peace lines’. 

Povertyand deprivation is persistent and intergenerational and has been deepened by 40 years of conflict.

Securityissues have left NI with the most expensive policing in the UK, because of the unaddressed blight of Sectarianism, which in turn has led to decades of Underinvestment, and is reproduced in part by the segregation in our Education system, a multi-tiered complex whichsegregates age four by faith & by class at 11.

Then there is the social cost - 80% of Protestant boys on Free School Meals who leave school without any usable qualifications.

In all of these categories, the statistics place Northern Ireland among the worst in the UK.

Aside from the de facto suspension of Stormont’s devolved responsibilities in order to ram through this legislation, there is an indecent haste which negates any idea of consultation with even opposing political parties in NI, let alone civil society organisations.

Further, the Fresh Start agreement also committed the two Stormont governing parties - Sinn Fein and the DUP - to accepting the Chancellor’s proposals on Tax Credits, a week before he announced them in his autumn Statement.  But the Autumn Statement saw a climb-down on this controversial policy, at least for now.

The overall view of the NI trade unions is being formalised through a series of briefings from local political parties and at this stage we neither support nor oppose the Fresh Start agreement.

That said, we believe that the welfare provisions imposed in Britain have been dangerous, dysfunctional and detrimental, and even with some tweaking (at the expense of other devolved functions and Stormont departments) will be bad for the working poor, and for disabled persons in a region which has higher rates of both.

This Welfare bill will not improve matters for those people by one jot.

There are many other aspects to the agreement which are unclear.

One thing is abundantly clear: the alternative on offer was and is Tory Direct Rule, which no party and certainly no trade unionist would wish for.

This debate is not yet finished….                                                                                          

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