THE deal announced at Stormont on Tuesday has performed its primary aim of keeping the political institutions in place, but even as we continue to peruse the lengthy document, it’s clear that it’s deeply unsatisfactory.
The mathematics involved in the economics of ‘mitigating’ welfare reform measures which the British government have effectively been invited to implement are dizzyingly complicated – and their complexity is evident in the way that the figures are being used by political parties in just about any way they choose in order to fit their various political narratives. But even as we await the outworking of the coming welfare reforms and what they will actually mean for those in need, it’s clear that Sinn Féin have resiled considerably from their ‘red line’ position of protecting the vulnerable – now and into the future – and their concomitant promise that no-one in need will lose out. It’s abundantly clear that people in need will lose out – it is only a question of by how much. An abstruse figure of £345m has been posited for welfare mitigation purposes, but of course that figure is utterly meaningless unless we know the precise extent of the cuts to welfare that it is designed to offset. Knowing the Tories as we do, the hatchet is likely to be wielded here rather than the scalpel, meaning that the £345m is going to be spread very thinly indeed and the marginalised and the needy – the people that Sinn Féin loudly promised to defend – will be hit hard. And so therefore the party’s absolutist position on welfare reform can be viewed as a very significant error, and an embarrassing one to boot.
If the British government has prevailed on the welfare reform saga, it has similarly had its way on the vexed legacy issue, which has been ‘parked’ yet again in the face of an implacable determination on the part of London that any agreement on how we deal with the past must be secondary to an iron-clad proviso that ‘national security’ will always trump the truth. Moving the British from this position is a challenge of mammoth proportions and it comes as no surprise that Sinn Féin – and the SDLP – failed there too. But once again victims, and in this instance victims of state violence in particular, are shunted to the side as other priorities take precedence. How many more aged and ageing relatives will have gone to their graves without having achieved truth and justice by the time this issue is next raised in any serious and meaningful way is a question that we can’t answer. In their dogged battle against the truth, the British are using the attrition of the passing years as a cynical weapon against families and repeatedly setting the issue to the side suits them down to the ground.
Meanwhile, all that can be said about the section on paramilitarism – the very issue which precipitated the talks in the first place – is that it would be a joke if it weren’t so serious. The paper-thin proposals are an endorsement of our repeated contention – one shared by many others – that this ‘crisis’ was in effect nothing more than a unionist sham fight and that the deaths of Kevin McGuigan and Jock Davison in reality meant little or nothing to those parties engaged in a struggle for unionist electoral supremacy.
The one issue during the talks that clearly proved least problematic was the need to give business a break. Striking a new and lower corporation tax was the right thing to do, but the poor and the marginalised will smile wryly at the fact that in Stormont 2015, giving money to business is infinitely easier than giving support to those who most need it.