Whatever happened to Heenan Anderson?

14 Aug 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 14 Aug 2015

Ed Miliband launches the to-date invisible Heenan Anderson Commission

Whatever happened to the Heenan-Anderson Commission?

Remember it? The intriguing axis of the highly-networked academic and TV pundit Deirdre Heenan and the veteran advertising man Colin Anderson, whose panel reads like a pleasing cocktail of all that is good and great in civic society?

It was commissioned by the British Labour Party amidst great fanfare last November. The party wanted to understand the issues in Northern Ireland in order to inform policy In preparation for the General Election last May

There was considerable media interest, not least because many here believed that if Labour were to win the election then the impact of Welfare cuts would be mitigated, perhaps even breaking the deadlock over the Stormont House Agreement.

Submissions were duly solicited and enthusiastically given. Here after all was a Westminster party prepared to come over and listen, which was great - Ed Miliband dropped in as well and there was much fawning and photo bombing at the meeting he attended.

There were even lobbyists and business men in attendance, campaigning for the abolition of Corporation Tax. Presumably these people also believe they are marginalised and deprived.

Yet when you sat back and listened to Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis and Miliband there was very little of substance in their speeches. And when Scope interviewed Lewis we did not get an impression of a new vision. Lewis was cold to cool on the idea of Labour standing here and making itself accountable, and neither he nor Miliband were robust on Welfare cuts.

But as the election loomed, there was no sign of the report, January, February, March ticked by.

In April Ivan Lewis tweeted that many of his party’s policies had been informed by Heenan-Anderson although he did not specify what they were, and as no report had been published, we had no means of knowing. On the 25th of that month Deirdre Heenan tweeted: “Bigger task than could have envisaged, but it's coming.”

There has been nothing since.

It is all a bit confusing. Nobody seems to know whether the Labour Party would author the report, after taking submissions or whether Heenan Anderson would, and if so who would authorise it. Maybe it will emerge at some future point, maybe it is dead and buried. Who knows?

But if it was a listening exercise perhaps Messrs Lewis and Miliband had the sound button turned to mute.

Time for an apology?

Because on Welfare cuts, all the main parties in Northern Ireland had issues with the Coalition’s Welfare cuts programme, prior to the election. And when the new Conservative government announced, deeper more hurtful ones, the DUP, SDLP and the UUP voted against them.

Although Jeremy Corbyn and 47 other Labour rebels voted No, Ivan Lewis, Ed Miliband and a certain Andy Burnham, who the Northern Ireland Labour Party are endorsing as a candidate in the Labour leadership elections, all abstained.

This is all hard to believe.

 Given that mainstream political opinion in Northern Ireland, aside from the handful of attention-seeking mavericks who enjoy going on Nolan and Talkback to trumpet their lack of empathy for the vulnerable, is either opposed to Welfare cuts, or else wants to mitigate them, it would be interesting to know if the Heenan-Anderson process in any way affected Ivan Lewis’s abstentionism. If indeed it did. Which we doubt.

And if his stance is at variance with the soundings he took, why can we not get a final report, or even the submissions, or minutes of relevant meetings?

It’s never a good idea to ask for peoples’ opinions on policy issues, then not to publish them. Maybe there will be some kind of report, or summary published at some future point and if there is perhaps Lewis and Miliband might have something to say to justify their position on further Welfare cuts. Otherwise they owe an apology to all those who turned up to make contributions to debates, and to panel members who gave up so much of their time, And most of all, perhaps, to Heenan and Anderson themselves, who must be feeling more than a little embarrassed at putting themselves forward in the first place. Unless of course they are the cause of the delay, which again seems  hard to believe.

Which leads us finally to the plight of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland whose members back Burnham, who abstained on Welfare cuts.

Jeremy Corbyn who opposes the cuts and understands the special circumstances of a post conflict zone is beyond the pale in Northern Ireland.

Why? Just look at the party’s history here of splits over the “national question” which goes back to the inception of the state. Corbyn’s past relationship with the Troops Out Movement and his association with Sinn Fein would not help build support in working class PUL areas.

And in any event he has made it clear that he is not in favour of the Labour Party contesting seats “without consensus”, whatever that means.

So what can we conclude? A lot of people and organisations were delighted when a party which might have been in government came over here to seek opinions. A bizarrely constructed but interesting panel was brought together, views were sought. It all felt exciting, new initiatives seemed to be afoot.

But since the election, even though he claims to have been influenced by Heenan Anderson Lewis abstained on further Welfare cuts placing him to the right of the DUP on welfare issues, and a long way out of touch with mainstream Northern Ireland opinion.

A strange climax to an initiative which was designed to investigate economic deprivation and marginalisation in Northern Ireland.

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