Against a backdrop of “working people facing an onslaught of right wing policies in Ireland and across Britain”, the panel chair explained that this Féile an Phobail event was the “first time we’ve had these progressive organisations come together and share a stage”.
Twenty five plus years on since the community festival’s inception – and I understand some of the history and purpose of its creation – it’s remarkable that the organisers have allowed the programming to remain so tightly coupled to Sinn Féin’s agenda rather than reflecting and exploring the wider diversity of opinion and representation across the constituency.
The three panellists made their opening contributions from the lectern before taking questions from the audience.
Gemma Weir (Workers Party, described as a future elected politician in North Belfast)
Austerity is a political project. The “we” in “we must cut to grown the economy” are working people. The left alternative to austerity is not a pipedream. It’s viable, realistic and focussed. A socialist programme of social investment to grow the economy. Austerity is not the only solution to solve the current problems.
The Stormont House Agreement is our local version of austerity. Aside from welfare reform, the Stormont House Agreement slashes 20,000 public sector jobs, sells off profitable state assets like the Belfast Harbour and Translink, sells valuable public buildings and properties to developers, slashes health and prioritises the private over the public sector. An educated and skilled workforce is a much greater attraction than low tax rates.
Take the money set aside for civil service leavers [Ed – the Treasury loan that is specifically, and only, for voluntary redundancy packages?] to build much needed housing.
Joe Austin (Sinn Féin, described as a veteran republican)
The ‘left’ are those who believe in the means of production, distribution and exchange that is being ceased at the hands of the democratic forces on these islands. The left is a broad church with broad ideas. It’s different politically and ideologically from the right (which can be as divided as the left) but when push comes to shove they come together to fight. While Sinn Féin are always right (he and audience laugh) they don’t have a monopoly on being right. He came to encourage comrades on the left to seek identity and issues that are common. We should find out what unites us before what divides us.
Sinn Féin would act differently if there wasn’t an coalition in the Assembly. It’s Sinn Féin that’s blocking the treachery in the Stormont House Agreement. [Ed – the one that Sinn Féin agreed to implement and lauded as a sign of mature politics before their ‘reverse ferret’?] While we continue to navel gaze on the purist view of what the left is, the neo-liberals move forward with their agenda.
He was hugely impressed with Jeremy Corbyn’s “measured” and “well thought out” contributions at West Belfast Talks Back last night. This morning Corbyn was subjected to vicious attacks in local, Irish and British media, some attacks made by people identifying with the left.
Kieran Allen (People Before Profit, Dublin, replacing Gerry Carroll in the published line-up)
Austerity is operating on a 32 county basis. He pointed to chaos in the southern health service and a poorer education system. In the north, 20,000 people (including 3,000 teachers and 1,500 care assistants in schools) are about to be “forced out”. He spoke about “reluctant politicians” who are against austerity but implement it nonetheless, whether in Ireland, Greece or Sinn Féin through the Stormont House Agreement. Credible policy alternatives need to be realistic for working people, yet may annoy those in power. What’s happening in Greece could happen to any party: a left wing party that’s now implementing vicious austerity under directions from the EU. Four principles:
- Make wealthy individuals and corporations pay rather than the working class. Ireland has been set up as a tax haven on the edge of Europe. Apple were parasites.
- Against privatisation. Moved on from days of Margaret Thatcher and now encompasses Private Finance Initiatives and PPPs. He used the example of the Royal Victoria Hospital car park.
- Left has to be to the fore in defending the public sector. Nonsense that pubic sector is unproductive and inefficient. Reject idea that public sector is a problem. Why are we buying into agenda in the north about rebalancing pubic and private sector. We should be investing in public sector.
- Be clear that the left are against paying off “the gambling debts of bankers” in the south.
Is this credible? He said it was for working class people, but not for the elite in Europe.
In terms of addressing the panel’s title, Gemma offered a few suggestions (which might not be implementable) and Kieran’s four points could translate into policies that might be applicable in the south.
One questioner near the end asked how working class people equally affected on the Shankill Road could be “won over” to left of centre parties. I didn’t catch a specific answer to address his concern.
Much of the questioning – like the initial presentations – spent longer deliberating on the relationships between parties on the left and articulating the effect of austerity cuts than suggesting actual alternatives. In general it’s easier to discuss left wing unity, assign blame and count the cost than suggest policy changes.
Having mentioned the possibility of community resistance in light of austerity cuts in an earlier answer, I asked Joe Austin to suggest what kind of resistance would be appropriate in the north. He gave a partial answer in his closing remarks when he commented on the lengths people might have to go to challenge austerity:
Sinn Féin aren’t stopping anyone from organising mass demonstrations: we support them all. We’re not stopping anyone from blockading Stormont. We’re not stopping anyone from invading those powers, those bodies that have fiscal control. Lets do it. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s go out and do it, whether it’s north or south let’s do it.
Kieran Allen picked up on my second point asking for specific tangible measure that could be taken in the north to balance the budget. (My example was of the Royal Group of Hospitals down the road that cost more each year to run given the numerous advances in new and expensive therapies and drugs.) The People Before Profit representative suggested setting living wages that would reduce welfare costs.
Overall the panel and Q&A was heavy on rhetoric but short on specific implementable alternatives to austerity. By the sounds of comments at today’s seminar Sinn Féin are willing for the Executive to fall and for citizens to go out onto the streets over austerity. It’s going to be a long couple of years in Northern Ireland politics and public spending.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.