Are unionists ‘…committed to drastically lowering people’s standards of living’?

This is a quick companion piece to Mick’s on welfare reform cuts.

Gerry Adams issued a longish statement last week on the issue, which presumably can be taken as the current Sinn Féin position. These are a few relevant extracts:

The DUP has repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to participate positively in any of the institutions. Instead it has adopted a tactical approach aimed at serving the political agenda of a fundamentalist rump in their party rather than the needs of the whole community. As Martin McGuinness has noted ‘We are in government with unionists because we want to be. They are in government with us because they have to be.’ In other words the DUP and UUP have bought into the political institutions in terms of elections, salaries, and status but not into the need for real partnership government, the effective development of north-south co-operation, equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem. This overall shift to the right has left the DUP’s tactical engagement with the institutions threadbare…

Claims by unionists and loyalists that the objections of a handful of nationalist areas to orange parades going through their communities is an attack on the Orange is clearly a nonsense. The construction of an anti-Agreement unionist axis and the walk out are part of a unionist political agenda aimed at subverting the Good Friday Agreement and its equality and parity of esteem ethos. It’s about turning the clock back to the days when unionism was dominant. The anti-Good Friday Agreement axis within unionism, the pro-unionist stance of the British secretary of state, the refusal of Downing St to honour its own obligations, and its efforts to impose cuts in the welfare system, are combining to create the most serious threat to the political institutions in the north in recent years. The result of all of this is directly undermining power sharing and partnership government.

And on a ‘partisan British government’:

The unionist leaderships have been encouraged in their posture by a British government that has not been fully engaged with the political process for four years. Evidence of this can be found in the British failure to back the Haass compromise proposals on dealing with the past and legacy issues, flags and symbols, and parades. It can be found in the speed with which the Cameron government acquiesced to Peter Robinson’s demand for the establishment of the Hallett Inquiry into the OTR issue. It is a fact that the Cameron government, like the Major government in the 1990’s, has been explicitly partisan in championing a unionist agenda. The Tory government has also failed to make progress on those matters arising out of the various agreements, including the Good Friday Agreement, the Weston Park Agreement, and the St Andrew’s and Hillsborough agreements which have not been implemented. These include the Bill of Rights, the all-Ireland Charter of Rights, Acht na Gaeilge, the North South Consultative Forum, the Civic Forum and the inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. These are not matters for negotiation. They are agreements made and are the responsibility of the British and Irish governments to implement. The effect of all of this and of the British government’s handling of the political situation has been to reinforce political logjams.

The political process is in trouble… [my emphasis]

In addition the Tory-led government in London wants to impose changes to the welfare benefits system mirroring similar changes that have been introduced in England, Scotland and Wales – changes that have resulted in disastrous consequences for the disabled, the unemployed and those in low paid jobs. These should be opposed by a united Executive. These changes are not about reform. They are about cuts and they are part of a Thatcherite agenda designed to dismantle the welfare state. And Sinn Féin will oppose them. Most worryingly there is no evidence from Downing Street or the NIO or the Unionist leaderships of any likelihood of a real negotiation on all of these issues commencing in September.

…and…

I believe that the political process faces its greatest challenge since the Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1998.

The political reality for Sinn Féin is that casual (and generally meaningless) soundbites on the north get thrown around in political debates in the south. That suggests that the party is intentionally giving itself no room for manoeuvre here. Conveniently, Stephen Farry’s solo run on Magee has also exposed the extent to which power in the Executive is effectively decentralised, undermining the conceit that somehow ministers outside the OFDFM parties are powerless. Or that the other parties aren’t also *partners* in the Executive. And to emphasise the contrasting policies of Sinn Féin and the DUP (inter alia), Daithi McKay issued a direct challenge to supporters of the welfare cuts to openly defend them to their electorate:

I challenge unionists and those who support the Tory cuts agenda to go into their communities and attempt to explain why they are so committed to drastically lowering people’s standards of living, They need to explain to people struggling to get by in working-class areas the real impact of supporting a remote, unelected government of elites in London. Unionist leaders would be serving their electorate far better by uniting with those of us who are standing up for all communities, regardless of their political outlook, in resisting these savage cuts.

I doubt that the challenge will be taken up. For the DUP’s part, the intoxicating illusion of holding a balance of power in Westminster over-rides any concern about the impact of welfare cuts, if it actually had any to begin with. The prospect of fighting an Assembly election (a likely outcome of all this) over it’s support for a welfare cuts agenda may hold little appeal for a unionism that has expended so much political capital on cultivating its grievance myths among the communities most likely to be at the sharp end of those same cuts. It would be brave of the likes of the DUP and UUP to commit to, and actually articulate, a defence of the welfare cuts in the teeth of an electoral campaign instead of the usual sectariana like flags and parades. And that maybe makes an election less likely.

But, at some point, surely someone, from among the people they see as their electorate, will ask the DUP etc the question: why are so you committed to drastically lowering people’s standard of living?

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