People Before Profit were not part of agreeing the latest Stormont deal. Despite our call for all-party talks, we were excluded from the negotiations by the big parties, and were blocked from having any input into the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ document.
Where positive proposals have been made, People Before Profit will work to hold the big parties to their promises. Where obvious flaws exist, we will work to highlight these, and hold the new Executive to account.
Many people will no doubt be relieved that the long running saga at Stormont has been ‘resolved’. But there is serious reason to question whether this latest deal has in fact solved anything, not least the fundamental question of institutionalised sectarianism that gave rise to the crisis in the first place.
Many of the proposals in the deal are aspirational, and the absence of any effort to include any figures for spending in the document should give cause for concern. Beyond the headline proposals, there are repeated references to the need for “rationalisation” and “efficiency reviews”, otherwise known as politician-speak for austerity and job losses.
Proposals in the deal to enact a further ‘reform’ of the NI Civil Service and the ‘rationalisation’ of Arms Length Bodies are a thinly veiled confirmation that the executive intend to continue their long running practice of gutting decently paid jobs in the public sector. Similar suggestions that there should be cost cutting reviews in education, where schools are at crisis point with funding, are a disappointing abdication of the need to protect young people and their futures.
We welcome the proposal to “resolve” and “settle” the pay disputes in health and education. And we salute those workers who took action, forcing politicians to do what a decade of Stormont did not. But we note that as yet no concrete offer has been made to unions, that the proposal to increase the number of nurses falls far short of the number nurses themselves have been saying are needed, and call for the demands of workers to be urgently met.
Many will be pleased that there have been calls for the extension of welfare mitigations, but the proposed ‘review’ into this is not nearly enough. The big parties failed to grasp the opportunity to use these talks to take the power to protect the vulnerable and less well-off back from the Tories, or to demand that we create a welfare system that is just, humane, and fit for purpose. Welfare reform has already sent thousands of people to food banks or worse. This deal has done nothing for them.
People Before Profit are concerned with the way this deal proposes to further disenfranchise the electorate, who have had to sit back for the past few years without the ability to hold MLAs to account. The deal will greatly extend the period before an election must be called after a collapsed Executive, and proposes to allow ministers to continue in their roles for up to 18 weeks before we get the chance to vote them out. This is an erosion of people’s democratic rights, and will only exacerbate the culture of impunity that existed amongst some minsters in the previous executive.
We will carefully consider all of the different proposals to ‘reform’ the way Stormont works, but it is reasonable to say that they are inadequate. The alterations to the petition of concern are largely superficial, and no real change is likely to arise from them. The fact that the new Commissioner for Standards is to be appointed by the First and Deputy First ministers themselves, and will have no power to enact any sanctions should a minister be found to be in breach of the code of conduct, is patently absurd.
We note too, with the same sense of incredulity, the suggestion that the committee that will be formed to look into the changes needed as a result of the RHI inquiry, will in part be established by the very person who was at the helm when the debacle took place, and that those who proclaimed that there would be ‘no return to the status quo’ after RHI have obviously failed to deliver on that promise.
There are some welcome concessions on the Irish language, which are evidently the result of the hard work of Irish language activists in the last few years, but many will be disappointed that this deal still falls short in the commitments given in the St Andrews Agreement 14 years ago, and that the DUP have been rewarded for their obstructionist approach to Irish language rights.
It is disappointing too, given the apparent willingness of both governments to fund new projects, that no serious money was sought by the big parties for the rapidly growing Irish language community. Coláiste Feirste, the Irish language secondary school, is at maximum capacity and demand is still growing. Securing new funding streams for the wider Irish language community must, therefore, be an urgent priority for the incoming Executive.
It is perhaps on the issue of sectarianism that the deal falls short the furthest. Despite its much vaunted “new approach”, this deal will further entrench sectarianism into the state and doubles down on the “two traditions” schema whereby communal forces are elevated in politics above all others. The continuation of this practice means further crises are likely to develop in the future.
There is a thread running through much of the deal which presumes that sectarianism is something which takes places outside the assembly and the structures of the state, and little acknowledgment of the way that political practice at the top of society has been the main source of division here. Despite talk in the deal about ‘tackling paramilitarism’, there is little to suggest that the widely criticised relationship between Stormont funding and alleged paramilitaries, most obviously in the case of the SIF, will cease.
As the only socialist force in the Assembly, People Before Profit will do all we can to hold this new executive to account. Given the fact there will be no ‘official opposition’, this voice will be more important than ever. For us, the lesson of the last few years is that real change is likely to occur from following the example set by the nurses and health workers, by relying on action and people power, rather than waiting or relying on the big parties to deliver the change we so desperately need.