Ivan Lewis on the Stormont House Agreement
Lewis is in Belfast talking to the voluntary sector about the Heenan Anderson Commission which he has set up to look at how we address inequality in Northern Ireland.
So does this concern mean that Labour is planning to reverse austerity measures? What for example does he think of the Stormont House Agreement that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions as condemned as stoking inequality?
“Well we have had two years of political stalemate when not much was happening and this was causing massive damage in public confidence and trust in the political process and we welcome the fact that there now is agreement. It’s a really good thing and we agree with many aspects of the agreement. The big test will be implementation. ”
But does he agree with those who say it is a Tory austerity project?
“No. First of all any government has to balance the books. No government can be immune from financial realities and Northern Ireland is no different. “However Northern Ireland does face special challenges and it was really important that the financial package recognised that.”
He cites the flexibility on “Welfare Reform”; the fact that the UK government will pick up the tab for dealing with issues of the past and what he describes as a commitment to integrated education in the document as evidence of a recognition of Northern Ireland’s special status.
But he does not believe that Corporation Tax is quite the panacea that business interests and most of our politicians claim it to be.
Labour will not oppose the legislation when it comes before parliament but before it is implemented he wants to see three things.
“It’s likely that devolution of corporation tax will be on the statute books before the election. In power we are not going to reverse that piece of legislation: that would be wrong and unrealistic but we do want to make sure before we proceed with implementation that the agreement is being honoured and that we understand the full impact in Northern Ireland and also on the rest of the UK."
But does he not have an objection in principle, that this is a tax break for the rich and for big business?
“The first thing to say is that all the Northern Ireland parties of all ideologies have asked for this including the SDLP and Sinn Fein neither of which would claim to sign up for Thatcherite ideology.
“But where I would be hesitant is to suggest this is a panacea in terms of rebalancing the economy. If Northern Ireland doesn’t deal with the question of inequality and social exclusion, doesn’t invest in skills and training and Further Education then corporation tax alone will not deliver jobs and growth or the rebalancing of the economy.
“Could it be part of the solution? Yes, but it’s not cost free either: to reduce it to the levels of the Republic of Ireland would take £250 - £300 million out of rest of the budget and if you look at the challenges Northern Ireland has faced in the past few years in terms of balancing its books and keeping within budget that is going to be an incredibly difficult challenge.”
Does austerity work?
"Well any responsible government cannot simply allow the deficit to spiral out of control so deficit reduction and its ultimate elimination should be the objective. We’ve made that very clear.
“There has to be a balanced approach in terms of spend and impact on society and public services.
"So for example if you look at the Tory plans which involve going back to 1930s levels of spending on public services the potential consequences of that to the fabric of society are horrendous. We would be absolutely committed to reducing and eliminating the deficit but do it in a balanced way."
But how does rebalancing the books by increasing the burden on the poor help this and how do we reverse the trends that has seen the gap between rich and poor widen to that we experienced in Victorian times and social mobility go backwards?
“An incoming Labour government will abolish the bedroom tax and carry out an urgent review of the universal credit system because we recognise that at the moment it is in chaos. We will also increase the minimum wage and incentivise the living wage. And there are lots of things we will do in England that will be devolved to your local politicians. Ed Miliband’s big passion is for re-ordering the economy so it works for working people rather than those at the top. A slight complication is that a number of those policies are devolved so it will be up to Northern Ireland politicians to decide whether they want to pursue socially progressive policies."
So why doesn’t the Labour Party stand here?
"Well first the Northern Ireland Labour Party does a really good job but we’re not standing candidates and I pay tribute to what they do. Our sister party is the SDLP. Secondly the British government sets out to be an honest broker. And when you stop being an honest broker that causes all sorts of complications."
But isn’t the SDLP a sectarian party? Doesn’t that disenfranchise people of the left who do not come from the Catholic/nationalist tradition?
"I am not telling people how to vote it’s for them to make their decision. If you are of the left you may look at a whole range of parties."
"I am not telling people how to vote. I accept that some people feel disenfranchised. There’s massive disillusionment with politics all over Europe so the feeling here are not unique and I think the normalisation of politics over time would be a good thing but it has to come from the people of Northern Ireland, the demand, the pressure. You can’t put all the responsibility for this on the Labour Party. Surely some responsibility for that lies with the people of Northern Ireland?"
But is there not a massive contradiction in saying that on the one hand you are the sister party of the SDLP and on the other that you are honest brokers?
"Everybody accepts the Labour Party’s role in the peace process. Nobody suggested we were biased to the SDLP. We earned the respect and trust of both communities, and most of the parties and we are very proud of what we achieved."
The deadline for submissions to the Heenan Anderson Commission is 31 January and full details on how to give your views are available here.
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