Posted By: September 27, 2014


Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, September 27, 2114.
IF Stormont were to receive additional devolved powers, what would our politicians
do with them? In view of the slight inconvenience that Stormont cannot use the
powers it has, you may find that question somewhat less relevant to your daily
existence than the outcome of tonight’s hurling final replay.

However, the question is asked in an attempt to indicate how Stormont might work, by
moving away from the centuries-old debate on the state’s constitutional status and
concentrating instead on the role of the state in society. Even though the state’s
purpose is at the core of politics in most western democracies, it is an issue which
rarely surfaces here.

So what would you like for Northern Ireland – the US model of minimal state
involvement by allowing the private sector to get on with everything, including
health care (the right wing view) or a more hands-on approach by government to the
economy (usually defined as left wing)? Why, you ask, does it matter?

Well, the Troubles began under British social democracy with public ownership of
industry, transport and telecommunications and a high level of state welfare.

Peace came under a dwindling welfare state, in which nearly all public assets
(including, most recently, the Post Office) were being sold to the private sector
and the emphasis had moved from the common good to individualism.

Margaret Thatcher was largely responsible for the switch, but we had no say in it.
When the political settlement came, there was no referendum on what type of society
we wanted.

So, as Stormont falters, this might be a good time to ask us. It would certainly
make more sense than a border poll.

Ah, you say, Sinn Féin has spotted all that, which is why it opposes welfare cuts.
You have half a point.

With respect, Sinn Féin has missed the reasoning behind the cuts. David Cameron has
said that austerity is not a response to economic conditions, but a permanent
disassembling of the state.

So what type of society would our politicians build if they obtained more power? The
four main parties appear to want devolved corporation tax powers. Sinn Féin is
demanding “full fiscal powers”, while the SDLP finds refuge in the passive voice by
suggesting that “devolution needs to expand”. (If the SDLP ever kidnaps anyone we
will all know who did it by the style of language in the ransom note.)

All four also appear to favour reducing corporation tax from its present level of 20
per cent. Our rate is already much lower than rates in the US (39 per cent on
average) Japan (37 per cent) and the European Union (22 per cent on average). Their
proposed tax cut illustrates their generally right-wing view of the state’s role. It
should pay private businesses to locate here and then seek less tax from them on
their profits.

Meanwhile, the state will be expected to educate our children so that these
businesses can have a ready supply of labour. But since government will have less
money from taxation, how will school budgets be funded?

Students will still have to pay university fees and seek crippling loans so that
they can qualify for employment in state-subsidised, low tax-paying companies.
No-one in Stormont has challenged this approach (even though it leaves Sinn Féin
supporting increased government involvement through welfare, while advocating less
government involvement in reduced taxation.) In recognition of a left-wing tradition
here since the post-war welfare state, the parties have offered social perks
including free prescriptions and free travel for pensioners.

You can decide for yourself where you stand on the left/right divide. In making that
decision you are engaging in normal politics – a process the assembly’s systems and
structures encourage our parties to ignore. However, a working Stormont can be based
only on normal politics.

But, you say, it would require cumbersome and unprecedented parliamentary
arrangements to create and classify assembly parties and procedures into left and
right. Absolutely. So why should we have unusual arrangements to preserve
sectarianism, but not consider similar arrangements to combat it through normal

Our peace settlement was a bit like tonight’s hurling match – without the hurlers.
We only got the Artane Boys’ Band – tlots of marching behind flags, but no follow-up
of substance. The Stormont band marched around the field until the crowd became
bored and drifted away.

Our peace settlement ignored hurling and concentrated instead on the band’s music.
The latest round of talks merely promises some new tunes. So if you watch tonight’s
match, ask yourself: would you give powers over corporation tax to the Artane Boys’