From Socialist Voice, November 2006

Re-established Assembly will be a focal point for struggle and progress

As the Northern parties inch closer to re-establishing a functioning Assembly and Executive, the pressure is mounting, particularly on the DUP and the other unionist parties, to step up to the mark. The recent policy statements from the British direct-rule ministers on such issues as rates, water charges and cuts in education and health show the urgent need to re-establish a functioning regional government with real economic and fiscal powers.
    Reg Empey, leader of the UUP, has stated that the proposal by the British and Irish governments in relation to the development of an all-Ireland economy would change the North’s economy “from being a region of the UK into a region on the island of Ireland.”
    It is a strange logic that believes that moving from being less than 1 per cent of the population of the “United Kingdom” to being 30 per cent of an all-Ireland economy, so giving yourself greater economic and political influence over these vital decisions, is somehow weakening your ability to influence events.
    The DUP and the UUP are completely opposed to an all-Ireland economic approach, preferring to be a small regional economy as part of the wider British economy. They fail to grasp the economic reality—which the business interests have done for some time—that in order to build a vibrant Northern economy we need to develop an all-Ireland approach, maximising and building the home market, as the basis for moving forward. By adopting this position, unionists are jeopardising the economic future of their own constituents.
    The recent meeting in London between all the Northern parties elected to the Assembly and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, to discuss a financial package for the North, though it was an important step in having all the parties united in a shared approach to the British, in reality has failed to deliver any significant shift in the British government’s approach to overall economic policies. If the unionists read the signals they would be able to see that the British government does not care about their priorities.
    Brown’s package to the Northern parties included
• £52.37 billion, available over four years, beginning next spring;
• £18 billion allocated during the period 2007–2017;
• £1.8 billion for an innovation fund to promote research and development; and
• establishing a Belfast office to advise overseas investors on tax policy.
He also gave a commitment to looking at
• cutting corporation tax to 12½ per cent (the same as in the Republic), and
• examining the possibility of cutting fuel duties to counter cross-border smuggling.
    Although reducing corporation tax to a level comparable with that of the Republic appears to be a reasonable demand (whether we support such a demand is another question), it is difficult to see Brown conceding it at this point, when he knows that the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies would be very keen to have similar tax rates.
    The economic package now on the table will not be enough to overcome the years of neglect of infrastructure investment, to grow and build a modern manufacturing base. It is estimated that current spending runs at about £8 billion a year, and this new money would only come to about £3 billion between 2007 and 2011.
    All this is very much dependent on meeting the deadline of 28 November for re-establishing the Assembly and Executive. This is the old carrot-and-stick approach: it is the British applying economic and political muscle on unionism to move.
    The Northern economy is dominated by the public sector, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of gross domestic product, making it very dependent on economic and political priorities established in London. We have had decades of British government industrial and regional development policies that have failed to make any impact on widespread poverty and high unemployment. Where decisions are made, and the point of their delivery, has a direct bearing on social development and the quality of life.
    Unionism is aware that a shift in the economic relationship away from control and orientation by London, to an economic and social policy that responds to and is shaped by the economic and social priorities demanded by the people who live here, will begin to undermine their own power base.
    In a world dominated by economic policies shaped in the interests of transnational corporations, it is absolutely necessary to maximise controls that ensure the well-being of all our people. An essential starting-point is public control over all natural resources, on land, under the sea bed, and in our coastal waters.
    As the Northern economy at the beginning of the twentieth century was structurally connected to the fortunes of the British empire, so also its decline mirrors the decline of that empire. There were strong economic, political and military grounds then for imperialism’s partitioning of Ireland; but the British empire, once described as the “workshop of the world,” is now a centre for finance capital, with manufacturing reduced to a secondary position.
    Today the British have new and more important allies in Ireland: the political and economic elite in the Republic. Unionism is no longer the sole ally but has been reduced to a role secondary to that of the establishment in the South.
    A re-established Assembly and Executive can and must become the focal point for struggle on issues that bring unity and co-operation in shared concerns to both sections of the Irish working class.

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