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Cynic in me says welfare row has been a put-up job

By Eamonn McCann

Published 03/06/2015

Education Minister John O’Dowd
Education Minister John O’Dowd

There are posters and placards all over the place bearing party political logos and appeals to all to 'Fight The Tory Cuts'. Meanwhile, the axe continues in its rhythmic fall and rise and fall again, cutting, cutting, cutting.

If the Department of Education plans work out (a further) 560 teaching jobs and more than a thousand support jobs will be gone by the time schools return from this year's summer holidays.

A 10.8% cut at the Department of Employment and Learning has put 1,500 jobs in jeopardy in further and higher education. We stand to lose 2,500 university places and more than 10,000 places in further education.

This would be a body-blow to the prospects of young people from poorly-off areas in particular, thousands of whom depend on FE colleges for a route back into the system for qualification for a half-decent job.

What are we to call these curbs on spending - others could be cited from every Stormont department - if not Tory cuts?

And what's the point of urging a fight to stop them when the principle has been conceded and the precedent set?

The smoke and thunder over welfare reform has served so well to obscure the loss of jobs and services that a cynic might suspect that the argy-bargy of the last few weeks has been a put-up job; that the two biggest parties have had a deal on welfare in their hip pockets for a half-a-year and have been waiting for the optimal moment to toss the texts onto the table and announce another triumph snatched from the jaws of disaster.

Last week's passionate, fractious Assembly debate on the DUP's motion to push ahead with "reform" had been preceded by a petition of concern, which rendered the proceedings as redundant as a classroom assistant in John O'Dowd's sights.

Every MLA who contributed will have known as she or he stood up that nothing they were about to say was going to make a blind bit of difference to anything.

No doubt many meant every word they said. But it wouldn't have mattered if each had delivered a masterclass in advanced deviousness. But they still had to have the debate. It's what they do.

It's possible the fix has been in all along. Mistrustful members of the population - a majority, probably - will have cocked an ear in recent weeks whenever an Executive minister has pledged at all costs to "defend the most vulnerable" and gone on immediately to specify, say, "children with severe disabilities" as being included in this category.

So, children with moderate disabilities are not included? Adults with severe disabilities?

The cold and the cynical will parse every phrase. A bleak way to look at life, no doubt. But it's the truth which chills our outlook.

What some commentators appear to find most alarming about the possibility of the Assembly collapsing is that this could scupper the plans put together at Stormont House for an interlocking series of mechanisms for "dealing with the past", said to be key to maintaining the peace process. Do a deal on welfare for the sake of peace.

But this makes no sense, either. What reason can the Assembly parties have had to believe that their scheme would lead to a common understanding of recent history?

Anyone who expects the political chiefs of the killer spooks who featured in last week's BBC Panorama to step forward and explain themselves to some tribunal or other is so awesomely innocent they shouldn't be allowed out on their own. It's not going to happen. Everybody knows it's not going to happen.

And since the State has no intention of coming clean about its role in the murder of citizens here or in any other area of operation, why should local paramilitary organisations and their political affiliates take any different view?

The entire business of dealing with the past is fake. The only front line participants in the Troubles who are serious about telling the truth are those who no longer believe in the things that they did, or in the people who sent them to do it.

And every prospective truth-teller knows that, if they dared to come clean, they'd be denounced as drug-addicts haunted by demons and condemned for endangering peace.

Underlying the dysfunctionality of the Stormont institutions is the fact that the peace process cannot handle the truth.

Belfast Telegraph

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