The sight of Martin McGuinness addressing an anti-austerity rally in London at the weekend showed just how far Sinn Féin has travelled away from its supposed goal of a “United Ireland”. Not only was the Irish Republican Leader directly intervening in British politics, but he was doing so as part of his ongoing campaign to hold the begging bowl out to the UK Government to secure more English money. “Ourselves alone” it most certainly ain’t.
To be clear, the average person in Northern Ireland receives the highest amount of public spending in the UK but pays the lowest taxes in the UK (even, in fact, excluding devolved household taxes, which are themselves by far the lowest). Revenue raised in Northern Ireland itself just about covers all of our devolved spending, but scarcely any welfare and nothing at all of the common defence of diplomacy budget. Of course, Northern Irish people contribute in many other ways so we shouldn’t feel too guilty about it, but we have to be realistic that we are already reliant on revenue raised elsewhere in the UK and the situation is already a highly generous one. It is worth noting that Northern Ireland also has access to international philanthropic and EU programme funding unavailable elsewhere in the UK, effectively raising spending per head still further.
So, a Northern Ireland party demanding more public spending in Northern Ireland can, logically, only be suggesting one of two things: either a) we are going to raise our own household taxes and domestic charges (prescription, tuition, perhaps roads, bins); or b) we want England to give us even more money, on top of the inflated amount it already effectively gives us. Sinn Féin does not advocate the former beyond removing the rates cap (a good idea, but one which would raise only a tenth of the budget of the smallest department); so clearly it advocates the latter. In other words, Sinn Féin’s strategy for a “United Ireland” consists of demanding ever more money from, er, England… “Ourselves kind of not really alone because we are wholly reliant on someone else’s money”.
Sinn Féin bases its case on the UK Government “having taken £1.5 billion out of the Northern Ireland budget”. There is a case that, in real terms, it has removed £1.4 billion from spending in Northern Ireland, but ironically only if you include defence (600 personnel and associated spending were moved away from Northern Ireland last year alone – how amusing that Sinn Féin is now opposing this…); yet proportionately this figure is the lowest of the four countries of the UK. In other words, the three other countries of the UK – the ones Sinn Féin is holding the begging bowl out to – have suffered worse reductions in public spending in real terms. Of course, their economies are not as reliant on the public sector so living standards have not declined as sharply – but it was Sinn Féin who told us how our bloated bureaucracy would protect us in the case of recession, yet another shocking misjudgement!
The craziest thing of all, of course, is that the purpose of the UK’s “austerity” programme is to run a surplus in the government accounts (i.e. raise more in revenue than is spent on services or welfare in order to reduce the overall debt). There are only three EU countries which currently manage this – Germany, Estonia and, er, Ireland. That last one is Ireland – the country Sinn Féin wants us to merge with…
Sinn Féin’s plan for a “United Ireland” therefore consists of maximising our financial distinctiveness from the rest of Ireland and making us more reliant on English money. I would suggest you couldn’t make it up – except Sinn Féin just has…!