Belfast Telegraph

Budget's good for business ... but what about the rest of us?

By Eamonn McCann

It was a close-run thing whether the Confederation of British Industry or the Institute of Directors was first into print with the press release hailing Peter Robinson's budget as worthy of the Booker Prize (almost).

I say Peter Robinson's budget. But the DUP man will be the first to agree that this was a joint effort, co-written by Sinn Fein and with acknowledged input from the SDLP and Ulster Unionists.

I detected a slight curl on Mark Durkan's lip as he agreed with Jim Fitzpatrick that, basically, the budget projections were sound. Reg Empey didn't look ecstatic, but then, he doesn't.

Understandable if Mark and Reg were mildly miffed. Stuff like this happens all the time in Hollywood. Fellows flog their guts out finessing a script, then the backers pull the plug and they've no option but to abandon the enterprise. Couple of years later the studio's back in business, somebody from the new in-crowd picks up on the project, tweaks a phrase here, inserts a word there, and suddenly the production is on general release to rave reviews and side orders of superlatives all round.

Anyway, all four main parties are essentially of one mind on budgetary matters. The business, er, community ... I know I've said this before, but enough with the communities. A community used to be the sort of place I grew up in. Warm-hearted and we thought we were all one. Now any dodgy assemblage can masquerade as well-meaning by dressing themselves up as a community. The bank-robbing community. The devil-worshipping community. The business community, which apparently believes that the '07 budget is the bee's knees, the cat's pyjamas and the best thing since Brewster's bread.

Every newspaper editorial I've read is well on-side, too. And people introduced as "experts" on radio and TV.

Unanimous then? No dissent. What a cheerful, united, untroubled and altogether together little society we must live in. No intimation of conflict in sight. No argument anywhere to be heard. Nobody alienated from what's happening all around.

Or, to put it another way, there's a slew of people - top civil servants, company bosses, media moguls and the like - and, echoing them, MLAs - who have it as their most basic assumption that what's good for business is good for society. So, naturally, they sing hosannas for a budget geared to deliver for business, even if it's at the expense of the no-account majority.

So, cutting taxes on business is good. And cutting the wages of workers is also good.

It's an article of faith among the People Who Matter that the main drag on our economy is a "bloated" public sector, bearing down ominously on potential investors, crushing the spirit of feisty entrepreneurs.

Any day now, perhaps some Person Who Matters will explain to us the role of the bloated public sector in destroying the jobs of 900 people in Limavady, when there was us imagining that it had to do with the way the capitalist system works, roaming the world on permanent alert for locations where people will work for washers and there's no regulation to restrain the unbridled pursuit of profit.

Mr Robinson tells us that we have to accept Private Finance Initiatives which will leave us in hock to profiteers for a generation, while the health budget is left so short that the Department warns that the gap between NHS provision in NI and Britain will widen even further.

When Minister McGimpsey shows the gumption to issue the warning, Peter Robinson tells him to stop whingeing. And nobody else on the Executive tells Robinson to pipe down.

The fact that the North is emerging from 30 years of conflict doesn't figure in the budget as relevant to the state of the economy.

Factoring that in wouldn't help the Executive make its case for targets for deep cuts in civil service jobs over the next three years. So it's factored out.

There isn't a mention either under "social and economic context" of the particular difficulties of the Border areas, which one of the Executive parties used never to give over about. But now they are all neat and clean and well-advised.

This is an ideological budget and the ideology is neo-liberalism.

And they tell us, as Margaret Thatcher used to in exactly the same context, that There Is No Alternative. But there is.

The only reason water charges aren't included in the budget is that the non-payment campaign scared the politicians off.

The charges were originally scheduled for imposition in April 2006. The threat of non-payment saw them postponed for a year in the hope we'd be softened up in the interim.

But non-payment campaigning saw them off again. Grass-roots organisation works. The battle isn't over, but the lesson is clear.

Nobody paid heed to the classroom assistants until they took action. Whatever they decide to do in the face of management's flat refusal to negotiate - acting on the instructions of the Department acting on the instructions of the Treasury - the same lesson shines through: organisation from below is the best weapon we have.

I reckon there's a battle a day coming up for the duration of this budget.

The watchword should be - Don't whinge, organise.

Belfast Telegraph


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