Stormont adopts Tory policy of attacking poor

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan at Stormont House. Picture by Ann McManus.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan at Stormont House. Picture by Ann McManus.

There's so much apathy among the talks weary public most don't even care about the fine detail of the inaccurately named 'fresh start' agreement.

But as of yesterday welfare reform - and I hate to use the word reform because the Tory's are slowly but surely dismantling the welfare state - will be handed back to Westminster. What happens after that no one knows because we've no real details but I'll hazard a guess it won't be positive.

In the short term money included in a mitigation package will come from Stormont's own budget to soften the blow.

Just under half of the money set aside, £240 million, will go towards the working poor, those families receiving tax credits to supplement their income.

Because of pressure from within his own party and from the House of Lords George Osborne looks likely to do a rethink on sweeping tax credits cuts, so nothing has really been gained on that front that wasn't already in the pipeline.

By the same token corporation tax to big business will be cut by 2018.

The logic of this, take from the poor give to the rich, policy is that it will create more jobs that will help get people off welfare.

The money still has to be found to foot the tax cut and that will mean cutting more public sector jobs and services. Yet there is still no pressure on those large employers to pay a 'living wage' and to ban zero hour contracts that leave people forced to rely on welfare top ups just to eat.

I have a full time job that pays me enough to feed my family and heat my house and for that I'm very grateful, but I've friends who aren't so lucky and who despite working all the hours their employer will give them still don't take home enough to keep their children in food and clothes while still heating their homes.

The Tory policy of attacking the poor to pay for the rich, now adopted by Stormont, has been helped by 'poverty porn' programmes that have painted a false picture of life on benefits and demonised the people who claim them.

It has successfully created an environment where many people are willing to blame their neighbours rather than banks and greedy property speculators on their financial plight.

Here in the north we often hear it said that we are an exceptional case because of our troubled past, and we are a unique case, crippled by bad leadership, misappropriation of peace funding and chronic lack of outside investment.

I'd like to think that our experiences have made us a more compassionate bunch, but not always so.

What we have been promised in the 'fresh start' is a load of new quangos, boards, bodies and consultation groups and another £60 million for 'confidence and relationship building' projects.

Millions set aside for the same handful of people, chosen in many cases not because of talent or vision but because of who they are related to or how much of a threat to peace they would pose if cut loose.

While young people clutching university degrees remain unemployed a handful of people have cornered the market holding three maybe four 'community posts' at the same time while shamelessly sitting on the board or committee of steering groups or forums all with remuneration involved.

There's no one man one job policy in that sector, but one man many jobs, none of them really achieving anything but all just ticking along nicely.

Don't ask them what they do because in the last 15 years they've created a language of community speak full of words like facilitation, capacity building, reimaging and that golden goose of community funding 'shared space'.

More peace walls have gone up than come down, sectarianism, separation and mistrust between the two communities is at an all time high and yet the 'fresh start' while failing on many levels has ensured there is funding set aside for more of the same.

As for the past, the inability to resolve legacy issues is to the shame of devolved government and a travesty for those families who have fought for justice.

We've had five talks processes that have all failed to reach a solution, on this occasion the fault does not lie locally but with the state with threw in a last minute curve ball regarding withholding information from the proposed Historical Investigations Unit on the grounds of national security.

And so there's no fresh start for victims and survivors, just more of the same misery and in that vein this is not an agreement to be celebrated.