The Draft Budget which the Stormont Coalition parties have published for consultation will remove between £4-5bn from public expenditure in Northern Ireland over the four year period commencing 1 April 2011. If enacted, this budget will prove disastrous for the majority of people in Northern Ireland.
It is difficult to respond in detail to its provisions because – typical of the way that Stormont works - the details will be laid out at some point in the future by each department. The Workers’ Party will publish a detailed response to this Budget when it is in a position to do so. However, even at this stage we can say that it will not work and it will increase the social and economic hardship of the working class in Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the Stormont Budget and that of the Con-Dems, at the very least there will be massive cuts in education, Belfast Harbour will be sold off, hospitals will close and welfare provision will become more draconian. As noted in the Irish News (16th December), the Budget is predicated on Stormont earning £540 million from the sale of public assets and this figure relies on a wildly optimistic expectation of future property prices. When this sell-off doesn’t work, the Sinn Fein/DUP Stormont Coalition will doubtlessly introduce even greater austerity cutbacks and levies.
But even as it stands, for thousands of workers this Budget will mean disaster. The pay freeze for the 12,000 civil servants under Stormont control and who earn over £21,000 is a clear attack on working class civil servants and their families and localities. In the UK as a whole 4,000 public sector managers get paid £117,000 a year or more. A pay freeze for this group of people might mean a few belt-tightening exercises but will hardly prove disastrous. For those workers earning in and around £21,000 a pay freeze will mean that they and their families will go without basic goods and services. More generally, the 29% of our people who earn less than £300 per week will be disastrously affected by cutbacks in public sector provision, while for the 25% earning £800 and above cutbacks will hardly affect them at all. Moreover, as unemployment in the public sector and related sectors increases, the number of unemployed workers will increase by the thousands. This is the class reality of the society in which these thatcherite policies will be put in place.
Sinn Fein must take special blame for agreeing on this budget. For all its talk of the necessity of spending our way out of recession, in this Draft Budget Sinn Fein has totally accepted the neo-liberal Con-Dem agenda. The Budget they signed up to affirms that "the challenge for the Northern Ireland Executive [...] is to both rebuild the economy in the aftermath of the recession and to rebalance it towards the private sector in the context of the constrained public expenditure position" (2.30) and Chapter 3 of the document sets out the background to the UK deficit in terms that entirely reflect the Con-Dem austerity agenda, with its talk of "reducing welfare costs and wasteful public spending" (3.6) . Following the public consultation "a draft Economic Strategy will be developed and this will also reflect the outcome of the UK Coalition Government Paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy" (2.33). The Workers’ Party, along with the Trades Unions and progressive economists believe that "rebalancing" the economy means a further move away from public provision and the public good, a further growth in inequality as the rich pocket more, and a further attack on the working class. All this depends on the people of Northern Ireland accepting the austerity agenda. Recent protests and actions have shown that many thousands of people will not tolerate it.