Category Archives: Politics

Unacceptable for victims to bear entire burden

As one BBC NI journalist noted, there was something strangely curious about a BBC Spotlight programme on IRA gunrunning during the “peace” process occurring alongside the State dinner at Windsor where an IRA Commander supped with the Queen.

Three people – two police officers and one with alleged RIRA links – were plainly murdered with the guns so run, post-ceasefire. Their families lack justice, nor even the truth, about what happened.

It is one thing for them to be asked to bear the burden of constructive ambiguity, but there comes a time when the ambiguity becomes destructive. Without at least truth there is no justice, and without justice there can be no true peace. We need be in no doubt that many communities in Northern Ireland continue to “self-police”; the law is dished out by self-appointed men and not by the courts. The NIO, as it always has done, turns a convenient blind eye to it.

There must be at least some semblance of justice – both past and present – or we can forget about the future. Most of all, we cannot allow another generation to grow up thinking terrorists are cool and victims are a nuisance.

This is not a sham peace – it is real. But it is a sham democracy. Not because there is no “opposition” or such, but because there is no justice – at least not one equally and fairly applied. And without real democracy, peace can only ever be temporary.

Northern Ireland leads the way on skills

I noted last week the usual vague Twitter rantings from the usual vague Twitter suspects about how good things are good, bad things are bad, and we need to “invest in skills” and stuff.

Here’s the good news – we already are. Of course, when you do invest in skills, the results are not seen overnight – it may take years, decades even. But yet again, we in Northern Ireland should stop talking outselves down. There can be no question that Northern Ireland is doing all the right things in this area.

Here are a few:

  • tuition fees are frozen maximising access to higher education (we already have the highest social mobility rates in the UK);
  • we have added 1350 additional Undergraduate places, all in STEM subjects;
  • next year, we will have delivered a 60% increase in relevant PhD places over a four-year period, all in economically relevant subjects;
  • we have focused not just on academic places, but also on wage subsidies for younger people in work (as well as reviews of Apprenticeships and Youth Training Schemes);
  • we have trained 8000 people in customer care in tourism and hospitality;
  • we are assuring the delivery of skilled workers for inward investors via bespoke training programmes.

These are impressive reforms which will inevitably work through into a vastly improved economy prepared to create wealth (and thus jobs) by focusing on the most relevant areas – an economy which works well both for indigenous businesses and inward investors.

One more thing for those vague ramblers on Twitter – you can only deliver such things if you’re in government

Dealing with the Irish Language in NI

The Irish Language is in that unfortunate space in Northern Ireland where reactions to it are emotional – often flavoured by “community background” – rather than rational. Cases around it are made to suit the existing narrative rather than on a genuinely reasoned basis; and anyone stepping outside the “expected norm” of their own “side” (most obviously the East Belfast Mission at Skainos) is castigated mercilessly (but often unreasonably) by that “side”.

It is worth noting that this is rarely done by stating outright untruths, but rarely by emphasising the truths which suit our own narrative. Thus the fact few speak it as a native language in Northern Ireland can lead to it being easily dismissed as “dead” (even though it is all around us); or the fact that Presbyterians were central to its revival in the late 19th century can be hailed as “proof of an inherent cross-community interest” (even though this has not been meaningfully apparent for over a century). As too often in Northern Ireland, we find facts being made to suit a case, not a case being made to suit the facts!

For all that, there are actually two core ways of looking at the development of the Irish Language (and the government’s/tax payer’s role in it). It is worth looking at them in the (no doubt vain) hope of a rational compromise.

Firstly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is unique to the island of Ireland; that if we don’t take action to protect it we’ll lose it (because only we can save it); and that it is all around us (not least in place names) and part of all of us (regardless of background). On those grounds, we in Northern Ireland should play a full and comprehensive role in its development (and, particularly relevantly right now, we should certainly not be deprived of that role by funding for development organisations being shifted in its entirety to Dublin and the Gaeltacht).

Secondly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is a minority community interest, effectively a hobby; that it is not the government’s (tax payer’s) role to fund hobbies; and that if people want to develop it that is well and good, but they may do so in their own time at their own expense because public money is needed for schools and hospitals. On those grounds, it is dubious whether there should even be a “Department of Culture”, English should be the sole language of administration at all times (not least because it’s cheaper that way), and if anything Polish should be the second language as it has more native speakers.

At a purely rational level, I can absolutely see both of those arguments. However, the issue then becomes consistency. Frankly (and almost crudely), if you take the first argument you have to deliver a meaningful cross-community basis to all Irish Language activity (which means getting out of “silos” such as using the language to “mark Republican areas”, and removing some of the more fanciful notions about the language such as its alleged “ancientness”); if you take the second argument to its logical conclusion, the Orange Order should pay for its own marches (including security arrangements, notifying residents of road closures, post-parade clean-up and so on).

I do tend, personally, towards the first of the above (I personally am willing to pay something towards protection of a language on the grounds of cultural value even if I don’t speak it); but I respect those who tend towards the latter – as long as we are all consistent! Therefore, it would be helpful at least if we could shift the debate on to more rational ground, and then recognise the logical conclusions on other aspects of culture of the position we choose to take.

North of England also holds key to future of UK

I agreed with one regular reader recently that it is northern England, not northern Britain or Northern Ireland, which holds the biggest key to the future of the UK.

The simple reason for this is that it is in fact the north of England – not Scotland or Northern Ireland – which has really borne the brunt of the recent economic calamity, having already been on a downward curve compared to the rest of the UK for most of the past century.

One Labour MP is also bringing forward a complaint to Parliament about European money being spent in Scotland and Northern Ireland which, on the basis of GDP/capita, should be spent in poorer northern English cities. Indeed, Liverpool and Sheffield have combined to consider legal action on the point. The northern English will be polite no more!

In the industrial era, the north of England was among the most prosperous places on the planet – for much the same reason that Belfast was. It made the linen, grew the food and built the ships that the world wanted. Through its use of canals and its invention of rail, alongside significant medical breakthroughs (and the game of football, for that matter), it was also the hub of global innovation. “Manchester United” and “Liverpool” remain the world’s two most famous football clubs precisely because people brought to growing urban areas at the height of industrialisation used football as a means of coming together and growing their new local identity.

The north of England was, of course, interdependent with (the west of) Scotland and (the north of) Ireland at that time. People moved between them widely. Even now, Scottish and northern English accents are heard at Harland and Wolff, though now building a few wind turbines rather than a mass of huge ships. Likewise, Irish communities in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle continue to shape those cities – even now 1 person in around 130 in those cities, not that few if you imagine a heaving mass at a local shopping mall, identifies as “Northern Irish”; even more notably 1 in 30 in Northern Ireland identifies as “English”, with a majority probably from the north.

Yet the north of England’s economic and political decline has surely been even more marked. While Scotland gets away with free personal care and Northern Ireland gets away with rates and no water charges, households in the north of England have to scrape enough to pay for the lot. There is no oil dividend; as noted above, there are no peace funds. They gained the least during the Thatcher boom as many of the old industries collapsed (sometimes forcibly); yet they suffered most when the Great Recession hit.

To top it all, the northern English can do nothing about it. Where the Scots and Northern Irish have power in their own hands – with multitudes of government and third sector jobs going with it – the northern English lose out again. Liverpool may be closer economically, culturally (and even geographically depending on how you travel) to Belfast or Glasgow, it is governed directly from London. No Home Rule there!

I have to laugh, frankly, at Scots who claim they are second-class citizens in the UK. Put simply, devolution and other political developments have clearly seen Scotland and Northern Ireland advantaged and the north of England indisputably disadvantaged – both politically and economically. This is not something which will (or should) be allowed to go on indefinitely. Indeed, with all the focus on Holyrood and Stormont, it could just be that the very future of the Union is determined ultimately in the north of England – and justifiably so.

I disagree with Anna Lo on United Ireland

Anna Lo’s comments two weeks ago on the long-term future of Northern Ireland caused a furore when she said, in a personal capacity, that she thought it should unite with the Republic of Ireland.

Since I share Anna Lo’s social liberal stance on most issues, I will have no difficulty giving her my first preference vote, and campaigning for her. But I have to say I take issue with her explicit view that Northern Ireland would economically, politically and socially be better off uniting with the rest of the island.

So I guess I should come off the fence and state clearly an unequivocally where I stand. It is quite clear that, economically politically and socially, Northern Ireland should become the seventeenth state of Germany.

Economically, the case is quite simple. Over the past decade, German economic growth has been by far the fastest in Europe. German unemployment is also low at 5% (even youth unemployment is only around 7%), so you can take that map of unemployment in Ireland and shove it! Of all the parts of Germany, living standards have risen fastest in the five Eastern States, newly added to the Federal Republic in 1990. That is the type of growth which would also await Northern Ireland – except better, because DeLoreans are better than Trabants.

Politically, the case is even more compelling. Far from having to merge laws with the Republic or make up some new, unprecedented “Federal Ireland”, Northern Ireland would be joining what is already a Federal Republic – its domestic laws, legal system and education arrangements could remain unchanged, managed from the existing Northern Ireland Assembly (Nordirischer Landestag) in Belfast.

Even socially, in terms of identity, it makes sense too. Unionists will know what the Duke of Schomberg came from what is now Schaumburg, which is already in Germany. To seal the deal, Nationalists effectively get a United Ireland anyway – after all, the Republic has effectively been governed from Berlin and Frankfurt since 2008.

Northern Ireland would be one of the smaller States of Germany, of course, but far from the smallest – Hamburg is about the same size; Bremen and Saarland (itself transferred from France in the late ’50s – so a clear precedent, just in case anyone was thinking this proposal odd) are considerably smaller.

By the way, when it comes to sport, never mind a united Ireland football team – what about joining with Germany? In fact, it’s only right given that the penalty kick, which they have since perfected, was invented in County Armagh in 1891. “Wir sind nicht Brasilien, wir sind tatsaechlich besser” (“We’re not Brazil, we’re actually better”) would no doubt soon become a fans’ favourite.

Would the Germans want us? Well, probably not. But we should at least try, making the point that dealing with us would at least give them a break from having to deal with the Greeks once in a while.

The case is clear. Vorsprung durch Wheaten Bannock, as they whisper in Lurgan…

Meanwhile, in Catalonia…

“Everyone knows the Catalans want independence; they just don’t like to talk about it”. I had the great fortune to visit Catalonia on average every other year from 1992 to 2008, in almost every mode – business, conference, leisure, staying with a family. That sentence summed up the mood with regard to its constitutional position. However, since 2008, the changes have apparently been dramatic – I am always cautious about judging such things from afar.

Where once the impression I got was that most people there sought a federal state, or simply fiscal autonomy (as the Basques enjoy under age-old Charters), the polls and even the street demonstrations now point plainly to a desire for outright independence. My understanding is that this sentiment increased markedly upon the new centre-right Spanish Government’s insistence in 2010 on striking down aspects of the new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia, agreed in 2006. Specifically, it sought to strike down aspects of it which were the same as neighbouring Valencia, but did not seek to do so in Valencia’s case. Catalans were outraged – and fully a third of them turned out at a single demonstration to show it.

That’s where it appears to get tricky, however. “Independence” isn’t a straightforward thing. How do you secure your markets in the rest of Spain? How do you fund, recruit and train your new diplomatic corps? How, even, do you ensure FC Barcelona can continue to play in La Liga? It is all very well to have your own national, linguistic and sporting identity – but what about the practical stuff?

The parallels are obvious. Why is nobody thinking?!

Simplistic view of “identity” causes Western confusion

Another aspect of reporting and commentary on the Crimea situation, and Russia’s interventions broadly, is the alarmingly simplistic way in which notions such as “Russian identity” or “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers” (or similar) are referred to. None of these is a remotely simple concept – identity, understanding of ethnicity and language choice changes over time, depending on trends and circumstances.

For example, on my own visit to Chisinau in 2004, I noted that the road signs were in Romanian (sometimes referred to as Moldovan) yet the language spoken on the street was almost exclusively Russian. When I asked about this, I was told several times that in fact the language on the street “changes depending who is in government“, and that the language had been Romanian before the Communist Party had regained power, and would probably become Romanian again once they lost power.

This whole situation was made even more complex by controversy surrounding the terms “Romanian” and “Moldovan” – while few disputed they are the same linguistically, many disputed they are the same ethnically, and thus were inclined not to use “Romanian” to refer even to the language. This again was something which had changed over time and may change again – upon independence from the Soviet Union, many Moldovans were tempted by unity with Romania (western Moldova actually forms part of Romania; Moldova is partitioned); this temptation had declined over time, yet I noted most people on my flight held Romanian (and thus now European Union) passports. On the other hand, many Russian speakers were in fact not ethnically Russian at all, but Ukrainian or something else.

In Estonia, I visited the border town of Narva, where one looks directly at a citadel and an imposing hill with the very word “RUSSIA” written on it in Cyrillic script, Hollywood-like. Narva is 96% Russian-speaking (though again, by no means all ethnically/nationally Russian). When asked where their capital was, most people said “Tallinn”, an acceptance of a degree of Estonian statehood; yet when asked who their President was, most said “Putin” – after all, Russia gives many of them a vote as Russian citizens, but Estonia disallows them because they do not speak Estonian. Such split identity is rarely stable.

It is exactly this uncertainty which Putin himself has capitalised on in Ukraine. Crimea’s population is indeed 58% ethnically Russian and huge-majority Russian-speaking, yet there had been no serious attempt on the part of its citizens to unify with Russia. Many had come to accept a trial identity – Crimean (region?), Russian (nation?), Ukrainian (state?) – without real difficulty. Yes perhaps, when their media is taken over by people suggesting they are being purged and troops enter the streets to “protect” them, their identity shifts to predominantly “Russian”. But it is far too simple to cast them off as solely that.

A further important point is this: within Ukraine itself, the prime identity shift is not west-east (the maps doing the rounds of social media displaying mere “linguistic majorities” do not do justice to the sizeable minorities across the country), but over/under the age of 25 or so. Those below the age of 25 had no experience of the Soviet Union, and grew up in a sovereign Ukraine. Few – even those who prefer to speak Russian – have much difficulty with that situation. Those above the age of 25 may long for the “good old days” as a world superpower – event those who prefer to speak Ukrainian.

In other words, “Russian identity” outside Russia often really means “nostalgia for the Soviet Union”, and perhaps for the Superpower status that went with it. Again, Putin has skilfully played to this – while the one-dimensional West has totally missed it.

We in Northern Ireland should be well versed at this. A BBC NI report on Sunday showed people at Ballynahinch Rugby Club cheering on the new Six Nations’ (i.e. European) Rugby Champions. The team they were cheering was Ireland, i.e. all-Ireland; yet we can be fairly sure that, to a man (and woman), they almost all vote Unionist (i.e. for NI to be part of the UK, not an all-Ireland). They will probably happily cheer on English athletes competing for “Team GB” at the Olympics, but probably split when it comes to their fellow Britons in the “England” football team. Of course, they will probably be Euro-sceptic, but will perhaps assemble at the very same location to cheer on the “Europe” team at the Ryder Cup later this year…

Even the “nostalgic identity” strikes me as relevant in Northern Ireland. When people say they are “British” or “Unionist”, do they really mean that in a contemporary sense for a multi-cultural UK? Or do they really mean it as a means of promoting nostalgia for a time when the UK was a Superpower? And is it this which conditions their political views – from instinctive Euro-scepticism to promoting pointless air routes to Canada rather than rationally useful ones to Germany (more of which tomorrow…)?

The Western media would have us believe identity is a single, lineal thing – you are either “Russian” or “Ukrainian”; “British” or “Irish”. It isn’t! Our misunderstanding of that is leading us to make appalling errors of judgement in our commentary on Crimea and elsewhere; and perhaps much closer to home too.

BBC completely misses the point on Crimea

The BBC is a fine institution, widely and rightly acclaimed for its impartial news service among other things. However, on Crimea it has been consistently out-reported by ITV, Sky and Channel 4 (as well as a range of non-UK channels) – because the BBC does not understand the issue and has not invested in enough quality journalism to put that deficiency right.

Yesterday’s reporting of the referendum in Crimea was a fine example of how the BBC has comprehensively missed the point. Its reporter was reasonable enough on the facts, but her analysis was shockingly inept. Essentially, she reported:

  • the referendum has taken place and been deemed “illegal” by other countries;
  • the referendum was boycotted by some groups unhappy at the absence of a “status quo” option;
  • Russia will probably be content with Crimea because it will be an economic drain, so it won’t be going for East Ukraine and certainly not for “Lithuania” because it’s in the EU and NATO.

Aside from the last (which we’ll come to), these are not unreasonable points in themselves. But they completely miss the big picture. Partly, perhaps, this is because of the BBC’s pledge of impartiality – “Other countries say it’s illegal, Russia says it’s legal, so we’ll let the viewers make their minds up”; and partly it is a failure of analysis (a growing and widespread problem).

The referendum is illegal; that is not something to be left to the viewer, that is a matter of fact. More than that, it is a very important matter of fact, for reasons well beyond mere sovereignty.

Rarely reported but fundamental to this case is the 1994 Budapest memorandum. This wasn’t just a quick chat between a few powers pledging to accept Ukraine’s sovereignty. It was an agreement that Ukraine would give up all the nuclear weapons on its territory in return for protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity by the three original nuclear powers (the United States, Russia as successor to the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom).

Put another way, it was agreed in return for Ukraine giving up the ultimate defence system, that it constituted a single sovereign unit (incorporating Crimea). No part of its can unilaterally secede – and if it does, all three signatories are bound to protect it.

What has happened is that one of those powers, far from protecting Ukraine, has mounted a subtle invasion of part of its territory, and thus blatantly breached the agreement. Let’s note this again: Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in return for Russia’s protection of its sovereignty – and Russia is now the very country breaching those terms!

The consequences of this do not bear thinking about. How is one to defuse the situation in South Asia, where both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons? How is one to defuse the situation in North Korea? How is one, most of all, to defuse the situation in the Middle East, where Israel (ahem) already has and Iran soon will have nuclear weapons? Remember, as of March 2014, “You don’t need nuclear weapons, we’ll protect you” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on…

Even leaving aside the Big Picture, there are some more details about the Small Picture any journalist on the ground at the location should have picked up.

For example, of Sevastopol’s 385,462 residents, an astonishing 474,137 managed to vote for Russia. The basic rigging of the referendum should have been first item! (Even this is before noting Sevastopol’s special status outside Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea area; there was no reason for Sevastopol to vote on any Crimea issue at all, in other words.)

Even all of this is to leave quite aside the point that the Tatars in Crimea are now completely vulnerable to the hated Russians, of whom their recent experience is one of forced deportation.

As for the last bullet point, the reporter’s answer is laughable. Here are a few bullet points of my own:

  • Putin couldn’t give a stuff about economic drains, he is all about himself and he will simply blame Western sanctions for any economic misfortunes;
  • Russia didn’t stop in Georgia so it’s hardly going to stop now – eastern Ukraine is indeed on the list (we know this because it has already sent people in); and
  • he won’t bother with Lithuania because it has the smallest “Russian” population of all the Baltic states, but he has already waged cyber-war on Estonia and stated an interest in goings-on in Latvia.

The underlying notion, stated by the BBC Reporter, that Putin isn’t really behind events in Crimea is just shockingly ludicrous. What is more, the order of events is unbelievably obvious:

  • he was already in possession of a chunk of Moldova his troops were supposed to leave in 1997 (the West did nothing);
  • he maintained possession of a chunk of Georgia by force in 2008 (the West did nothing);
  • he has now taken a chunk of Ukraine by tricks and force in 2014 (the West did nothing);
  • he may as well now take more chunks of Ukraine (the West has proved it will do nothing);
  • so why not the Baltics next, exactly? Because they’re members of NATO? You mean the military alliance headed by the two countries other than Russia which signed up to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and then did nothing about it?

Putin may well opt not to recognise Crimea as part of Russia, but as sovereign in its own right, at least initially. Why does no one mention this? It is what he or his predecessors did in Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) – frozen states under Russian domination which the West pretends are integral to their home country (and thus pretends not to need to bother with). It suits all sides.

This is pretty basic stuff, yet what the BBC reported flew directly in the face of it – one can only assume the Reporter had forgotten Georgia and knew nothing of Moldova?

It was a poor report from an organisation which has never properly got up to speed on the issue because it functioned only with reporters, not journalists. ITV’s James Mates and the entire Channel 4 crew, on the other hand, have been busy on the ground finding things out (and also, very effectively, using social media as well as broadcasts). Frankly, we would be better informed by googling stuff ourselves than from the BBC updates! The BBC needs to cut a few senior executive wages and invest in proper journalists.

Of course, another part of the problem is the BBC isn’t impartial. It has an innate bias towards professional, civilised, liberal people. Small wonder it comprehensively misses the point when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin…

Stop kidding ourselves: we don’t care about the poor

What really lay behind the refusal of some to countenance that the average public sector worker needs to make a contribution to our recovery after the Great Recession wiped off 10% of our overall wealth as a society (see yesterday’s piece and “Defending the Public Sector isn’t Defending the Poor“) was the common lack of solidarity towards poorer people. This is far from unique to public sector workers – but in the same way that it is often church goers who are most uncharitable, it is often the “Left” who are most unwilling to countenance doing anything themselves or making any sacrifice to help the poor in a meaningful way.

This takes us back to a truth which underlies this entire blog is this: we don’t care about the poor (we really don’t), in the same way, as I wrote last week, we don’t actually care about democracy. We only care about what suits us.

Sure, we like to think we care about others. We talk a good game. But we really don’t. In fact, inherently, we think they deserve it – as one correspondent put it in defence of public sector pensions: “Sure, why should a barman be as well paid as me?”

Just look at the raft of policies which have gone through Stormont, or been pursued by parties claiming to care about the poor:

  • Rates caps – the working poor person struggling to get by in a house valued at 120k pays 100% of their rates, but someone living in a house valued at 800k pays only 50%;
  • Prescription charges – the working poor person now has to look on as health services are cut to pay for the medicines of high earners and wealthy who could easily afford a tenner to pay for their own;
  • Water charges – the working poor person has to accept that water infrastructure is paid from the taxes they struggle to pay (i.e. from cuts to other public services), whereas wealthier home owners who would be paying directly for that infrastructure elsewhere in the UK get away without spreading the cost on to poorer people here;
  • Selection – the working poor person has no chance of paying for coaching for the transfer test, and thus their children are at an inherent advantage from age 9 to those whose parents can afford coaching (in practice paying for it, when you can, is almost obligatory);
  • Free Transport – the working poor person has to pay every bus and train fare, quite possibly merely to make their daily commute to work, while the wealthy working person aged 60 travels for free;
  • Winter payments – the working poor person’s taxes also go to winter payments for wealthy pensioners who do not even want them; and
  • Pensions – the working poor person is almost certainly in the private or voluntary sector (perhaps a support worker, a carer in a care home, a customer-facing retailer, a community worker or some such) and probably has no pension, but was almost going to look on as the Assembly took £1 billion from their public services over the next Assembly term merely to guarantee the pensions of those on higher incomes (thankfully, sense prevailed on this one).

Is that list not shocking?! Of course, well organised professional people’s lobbies will always get their way – on rates, on education, on payments and whatever. The working poor person who has to spend what little time they have working overtime or caring is left with the sharp end every time. Do we not care? I wonder…

Here’s the thing: I am clear that I am not poor and that thus I should pay prescription charges, water charges, and for my own pension; when I’m older I shouldn’t expect early retirement funded by others, nor even free public transport or random winter payments; others (because this doesn’t apply to me, but I’d say the same if it did) should pay full rates regardless of house value, should not benefit hugely from being able to afford to coach their children through tests, and so on; and by the way I am also clear that we will all have to work to 70 at least, changing career to do it if needs be – teachers will become college lecturers or inspectors; nurses will become Health Board workers or trainers; some of us will have to work check-outs or take tourists around the sites to top up our income (many already do, after all).

Fundamentally: that means we will all have to look after our health, we will all have to save some of our money, and by the way some of us will have to give up on second holidays or second homes to put more into the system to aid those who can’t afford one holiday or one home without going into massive debt. After the Great Recession, that’s the reality.

But are those of us who are not poor prepared to do that? I doubt it! Some of us simply deny we’re not poor, even when we’re among the top 15% of earners! For others, whatever we say, deep down what we really believe is that there’s something wrong with those who can’t afford one holiday or one home. Even if we really really don’t believe that, we will still find some excuse for suggesting that this is all for someone else to deal with and not us because even if others cheated their way to wealth, we ourselves indisputably deserve what we’ve got and frankly that holiday villa on the Mediterranean is really an investment for later in life…

And that’s just the poor in Northern Ireland. What about the Chinese workers building iPhones on a couple of dollars an hour (16 hours a day) so that we can afford them; or making toys for a quarter of the wage of a graduate Civil Servant so that we can “boost retail” at Christmas? Are any of us campaigning for them to be paid “Living Wage”, or to have pension rights funded by us the Western consumer in return for their willingness to work for so little? Of course not. The thought hadn’t even crossed our mind!

And of course, as noted last week, we can stuff everyone in Crimea, so long as it protects our energy sources and property prices.

We should stop kidding ourselves. We don’t really care about the poor – and certainly not enough to sacrifice anything to help them.

Public Sector Unions’ lack of solidarity with poor disappointing

I was unsurprised by the wide-ranging response to my blog post two weeks ago entitled “Defending the Public Sector isn’t Defending the Poor“. What was interesting was that not a single negative response provided any evidence whatsoever to challenge the point of the piece – inherent within the title!

There is of course a case for defending the Public Sector per se – and indeed the Public Sector Unions should do it. This very blog has argued that too much administration is being foisted on to teachers; the treatment hospital nurses are expected to put up with is outrageous; and most notably of all all workers should have a reasonable expectation not to be injured at work, and that very much includes police officers. Contrary to some of the nonsensical abuse which followed the piece, I have in fact argued consistently for removing administrative burden from teachers and increasing their pay (relative to other workers); for fundamentally re-assessing the requirements placed upon nurses particularly with reference to the burden of proof during complaints; and for politicians to stand up for the basic right of all public sector workers to be safe in the line of duty.

However, the fact is (and Public Sector Unions don’t seem too keen on facts) that Northern Ireland suffered a 10% real-terms decline in living standards during the Great Recession, more so than anywhere else in the UK. It is unreasonable to the point of being outrageous that anyone would think that they can get away without contributing to the very real burden this has caused us all.

Yet, thus far, the fact is the brunt has been borne by the private and voluntary sector suffering job losses, reduced hours and lower wages. At the same time (and note this is not an attack, it is a fact – let us be clear about the distinction) no compulsory redundancies and no pay cuts of any kind in any part of the public sector.

Despite this, no one is suggesting compulsory redundancies or pay cuts for the public sector – a remarkable piece of solidarity with public sector workers on the part of the rest of us. The Assembly has merely decided that, given the appalling economic circumstances towards for which absolutely everyone else has suffered, public sector workers should perhaps need to save more for their pension in order that we do not all collectively have hand over a £1 billion out of the NI public services budget during the next Assembly term.

The shocking lack of solidarity shown towards the working poor (almost universally to be found among the two thirds of workers in the private and voluntary sector) by Public Sector Unions will not be swiftly forgotten. Alongside business organisations’ appalling failure to advocate swift moves towards higher wages in the private sector, the Unions’ protectionist attitude of a single sector at the expense of the rest of us is a prime factor in “Sector Wars”. We should be thankful that, however reluctantly, the Assembly did what was right so that everyone pays their way in our recovery from a Great Recession in which £1 in every £10 has essentially disappeared from us.

I changed the title in response to an entirely reasonable point made by a Twitter correspondent – the type of constructive criticism I wish I had more of on this blog!


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