Belfast Telegraph

Sammy wants the unions to shut up (just like the shops)

By Eamonn McCann

Does Sammy Wilson ever visit Connswater Shopping Centre these days? It's in his old east Belfast stomping-ground, round the corner from where he used to teach. Economics, I am told.

He would find the shutters down at Easons stationers, Jayne Bentley florists, Woolworths, the Mr Pickworth cafe, Barratts shoes and the D8 jeans store. He'd discover the same bleak vista on High Streets and shopping malls across the north.

At Stormont on Tuesday, Sammy told the trade unions to "shut up" with their whingeing about public sector job-losses which, he raged, served only to make people decide "'I'm not spending money.' That has an impact on wee shops. That has an impact on businesses."

Maybe, when he has a minute to spare from his heavy schedule of cabaret performances, Sammy will explain just how Bolshie trade unionism with regard to public sector jobs has caused the collapse of spending which led to the closure of these wee and not-so-wee shops.

Sammy's big headline-grabbing accusation was that union figures couldn't be trusted, because they had gotten it so wrong in the past.

"This time last year, they told me they would be losing 4,000 jobs," he said. "And we actually have more jobs in the public sector than last year."

The unions' estimate that, under present plans, 26,000 public sector jobs would go between now and 2017 had been plucked from the air, he alleged. "They haven't a clue where it is coming from."

The official figure for public sector employment in the north in September 2010 was 219,820; for September 2011, 215, 970. Difference: 3,850. Not a million miles off the mark.

The figures are official in that they have been supplied by the Department of Finance and Personnel. (Minister: S Wilson)

The 26,000 estimate of job-losses to come is based on the calculation by the Office of Budget Responsibility last November of 710,000 jobs to go from the public sector across the UK between now and 2017.

Northern Ireland accounts for 3.7% of public sector employment: distributing the projected losses pro-rata yields a figure of 26,000.

Sammy's ability to come up with some spurious statistical jiggery-pokery to challenge the figures is not to be doubted. Let's hear it.

But his claim that Peter Bunting and other senior union officials "haven't a clue" about the rationale for their estimate was just belligerent abuse. No change there, then.

Indeed, it's fair to record that there's been a consistency to Sammy's regular blustering about union irresponsibility.

As unions gathered in Belfast last June as part of a European Day of Action against job cuts, Sammy came in on cue with his standard sneer.

The unions were "using the cuts to gain political clout [and] giving false hope to people that somehow or other, by holding placards, they can avoid these financial choices."

He may have been right that holding up placards won't be enough to force a change in economic strategy. More vigorous methods may well be needed. But Sammy's point was that resistance of any kind is futile; that the best we can do is bow down and thole whatever the Treasury throws at us.

Back in September 2010, Sammy told the Northern Ireland Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy that: "The expenditure cuts we face are a certainty . . . Pain is inevitable, but however difficult it is going to be, wringing our hands or whingeing about it won't take us anywhere." The same message: lie back and lap it up.

The current argument over public sector job-losses takes place against a background of continuous, relentless pressure on living standards generally.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies forecasts that the proposed benefits cuts on their own would lead to an average 7% drop in household incomes here.

That bears thinking about. Which no doubt Sammy does. And then shrugs.

He shouldn't be saddled with all of the blame for the Executive's Iron Lady-ish approach, though.

Sammy serves a vital purpose for all the other Stormont parties, revelling in his willingness to go out front and catch the flak.

I didn't hear any MLA leap to his, or her, feet to tell Sammy where to get off, or assure the unions that they'd join in any call for another round of action.

So no change there, then, either.


From Belfast Telegraph