We reported in our last issue that Sinn Féin had endorsed a new welfare bill for the north of Ireland, which, although enshrining a large part of the cuts agenda demanded by the British government in Westminster, included some vital protections that had been demanded by Sinn Féin and pushed through after extended negotiations.
The protected categories that it was finally agreed would not suffer as a result of changes to the benefits system were: families with children, children with disabilities, adults with severe disabilities and the long-term sick. That is, Sinn Féin demanded protection for those least able to protect themselves or to find any other source of support.
Both current and future claimants in these categories were included in the agreement, and it was further agreed that a fund would be set aside to meet the cost of refusing to implement the proposed draconian benefit cuts – cuts that have already been rolled out in Britain.
Although they have received much criticism for agreeing to any cuts in benefits and services, it is notable that Sinn Féin are the only party participating in government in either Britain or Ireland that has even tried to stand up against austerity in any meaningful way.
Sadly, the agreement they signed in good faith with the other parties of the north’s power-sharing assembly turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on.
In February, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP – the north’s largest unionist party) backtracked on the agreement, on the excuse that it was ‘too complicated’ and ‘too expensive’. In a new dossier sent to Sinn Féin by civil servants at the Department for Social Development (DSD, a ministry run by the DUP), it declared that it would be affordable to offer only partial protections covering only existing claimants.
Moreover, documents were included with the new proposals that indicated that the DUP had never intended to go along with the welfare agreement and had been acting in bad faith all along.
Some costings (relating to the funding needed to protect the severely disabled from benefit cuts) had been declared ‘unknowable’ in December, but were included in February in such a way as to make it clear that they had been known all along and simply withheld from Sinn Féin during the bill’s negotiations. Evidently, the staff at the DSD thought that Sinn Féin had seen the figures already, and were unaware that their DUP bosses had been hiding them in order to deflate the amount settled on for a final fund. The fund that had been agreed, which was believed at the time to be enough to provide complete protection from benefit cuts to all current and future claimants in all the specified categories will therefore be too small to do the job it has been designed for.
A principled stand
On first receiving the DUP’s new proposal, Sinn Féin sent an email to the DUP on 23 February stating its position: “On the back of our conversation today, just to reiterate, Sinn Féin agreed to a package on the basis that it was for current and future [claimants] and that the figures presented was for full loss of benefits.”
On receiving a second version of the new proposal, which remained the same in all essential elements, Sinn Féin again emailed the DUP’s advisor Stephen Brimstone: “Sinn Féin agreed a package on the basis that it was for existing and future claimants and for the full and not partial loss of benefit. Just to reiterate, any movement away from this will not be agreed by Sinn Féin.”
In an attempt to resolve the issue, Sinn Féin entered into new face-to-face negotations with the DUP. Martin McGuinness led a Sinn Féin delegation that met four times with DUP leader Peter Robinson in the space of two days.
Another meeting was scheduled for the next day, 6 March. Comrade McGuinness travelled to Belfast from his party’s Ard Fheis (annual conference) in Derry in order to attend, but the DUP leader did not show up, either on the appointed day or over the weekend of 7/8 March, although he knew that McGuinness was waiting for him to do so.
Sinn Féin was left with no alternative but to lodge a petition of concern to the assembly and to withdraw its support from the welfare bill. In its statement, the republican party stated baldly:
“If the DUP want to strip benefits from children with disabilities, from adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick, or push children further into poverty, then they need to explain and justify that. Sinn Féin certainly will not accept that approach.
“Until such times as the minister can produce a scheme for agreement which gives effect to the intent of the Stormont House Agreement by providing full protection for current and future claimants, Sinn Féin will not be in a position to support the welfare bill going through the assembly.
“The DUP have attempted to effect Tory welfare cuts by subterfuge but at the heart of this crisis is the ideologically driven attack on the welfare state by the Tory-led government in London.
“Sinn Féin will not be part of any agenda that punishes the most vulnerable in our society.” (‘Murphy sets out Sinn Féin dossier on welfare’ and ‘Welfare – the facts’ by Conor Murphy, sinnfein.ie, 11 March 2015)
No to austerity in the south
Meanwhile, in his presidential address to the party’s Ard Fheis in Derry, Gerry Adams also set out the party’s progressive agenda for the south, ahead of the pending general election there.
He listed various anti-austerity measures such as using the country’s wealth “to fund social equality”, saying: “That means that in government Sinn Féin will abolish water charges. We will scrap the property tax. Sinn Féin will introduce a wealth tax. We will bring in a third rate of income tax for those individuals earning over one hundred thousand euro; that’s seven cents on every euro over one hundred thousand euro. And Sinn Féin will take a further two hundred thousand people out of the Universal Social Charge.”
Speaking of those living away from the cities, Adams declared that “Rural Ireland needs a new deal. A new deal that will create and retain jobs in rural communities, protect rural schools and services, ensure access to health services and maximise support for hard pressed Gaeltacht [the Irish-speaking area in the west of the country] and island communities.
“That’s the thing about rights. You have rights no matter where you live. These have to include the right to a health service, to an education system, to quality child care, to a home, to a job, to a clean environment and to civil and religious liberties.
“Sinn Féin will invest in local-authority housing and introduce rent controls to help stem the rising tide of homelessness. Families in mortgage distress need to be able to remain in the family home. Last year, Sinn Féin introduced legislation to curb repossessions and to give other protections to families in mortgage distress. The government rejected our proposals.
“Instead, they gave the banks a veto. Sinn Féin will end that veto.”
Clearly accepting the Syriza ‘third way’ (ie, between capitalism and socialism) line on finding solutions to the economic woes of the Irish people, Adams declared the need to “work with others across the EU to find a sustainable long-term solution to the Eurozone debt crisis”, saying that it had taken “the government of Greece to break the conservative pretence that austerity is the only way” and talking of the need for a “sustainable” and “equitable” recovery.
He also called for an economy that “serves the people” and a system of “fair and progressive taxation” in which “everyone pays their fair share”.
Comrade Adams finished his speech by promising his party and the Irish people that it would not accept a position as a junior member in an Irish austerity government of big business: “Sinn Féin will not prop up either a Fine Gael or a Fianna Fáil government. Sinn Féin wants to lead the next government. I am confident that when it comes to making a choice, the people will make the change. The future hasn’t been written yet. Let’s write it together. Let’s make it happen!” (‘Ard Fheis 2015’, sinnfein.ie, March 2015)
While Marxists will not be able to endorse Comrade Gerry’s hopes for a non-revolutionary way out of the global capitalist crisis of overproduction, they should nevertheless be very happy to see the sincere and principled stand his party continues to take on questions of the reunification of Ireland and opposing cuts, privatisations and other austerity measures. Unlike many small parties that have grown bigger, getting closer to the corridors of power does not appear to have induced Sinn Féin to throw its principles out of the window in return for a few cushy jobs and ministerial pensions.
Quite the reverse. At every turn, the plans of the ruling élites, both north and south of the border, are being frustrated by the principled resistance of the progressive Irish masses, with Sinn Féin’s seasoned, republican leadership at their head. One can see, after all, what a national-liberation struggle is good for!