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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Three parties right, one party 'left'

(Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph)

"Why not create a Knowledge Bank—similar to that in Wales—to provide tailored, focussed and unified support mechanism for businesses with the potential to be high growth."

And why not put a question mark at the end of the sentence?

And shouldn't "mechanism" be plural?

The quote is from the Ulster Unionist Party's submission to the Economic Sub-Group of the Hain Assembly's Preparation for Government Committee. It's included, along with the submissions of the other Assembly parties, in the 116-page unanimously-agreed report which will be debated at Stormont today (Thursday) and tomorrow (Friday).

"Although while a broad agenda, some initial actions can be indicated." That's another sentence from the UUP document. It appears in a paragraph to do with "the emerging skills deficit" which "must be addressed by a partnership of government, schools, colleges, universities, employers and trade unions." And NI political parties, obviously.

It would be inappropriate to identify the MLA whose name is appended to the UUP submission when nobody admits authorship of the DUP document. Whoever it was appears to believe that syntax is a levy on line-dancing. "Believing that the sharing of a land border with an economic competitor whose headline corporation tax rate is 12.5%, the DUP supports the lowering of Northern Ireland's headline corporation tax to below 12.5%." Quite.

The DUP wants an edge against a rival economy—corporation tax reduced to a lower level than obtains in the South. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, wants to make common cause with separated brethren—the same rate across the island. It would be wrong to say that the parties take the same approach or offer identical policies. It would be right to say that, in practical terms, there's only a percentage point of difference between them.

Says the DUP: "Northern Ireland needs a serious dose of introspection within its Government department's [dear God] vis--vis their relationship with the business community and the promotion of a genuine partnership between Government and business with Government taking on the role of facilitating entrepreneurial opportunity."

Says Sinn Féin: "We should say yes to goal driven tax incentives which increase R&D activity, aid new product and process innovation, enhance worker training and development, help our entrepreneurs break into new markets and aid environmental improvements."

Either statement could fit comfortably into a policy statement from the Confederation of British Industry or an election appeal by Michael McDowell on behalf of the Progressive Democrats

The overlap in the positions of the two parties seen as crucial to the re-formation of an Executive will have helped achieve unanimity in the drafting of the sub-group's report. Whether the rank and file of the two parties is content with the report may be a different matter.

Perhaps differences emerged among MLAs on August 29th when the report was considered by the Preparation for Government Committee. Hard to say. The PfG Committee complained loudly a few weeks back about a lack of media interest in its proceedings. Then it conducted its debate on the economic report in secret. Hansard's account reads: "It was agreed that the committee's deliberations on the sub-group's report would not be included in Hansard. The committee then considered the report."

"Sources" have been quoted suggesting that Sinn Féin MLAs—despite two senior members of the party having signed off on the report—were unhappy at the vagueness of references to a "peace dividend." One wonders whether this was the only source of unease in party ranks.

The documents aren't formal statements of party policy, but submissions by pairs of MLAs to a sub-group of a committee of a suspended Assembly. But if they can be taken as indicating the broad thrust of party thinking —if they can not, the exercise has been a pointless charade—then the main ideological divide at Stormont on economic matters lies between the DUP, Sinn Féin and (insofar as it's possible to tell) the UUP on the Right and the SDLP on the Left.

This is not to say that the SDLP is on the Left, but that, on this evidence, it's to the Left of the Unionist parties and Sinn Féin.

The SDLP opens by suggesting a programme for Government based on "working with unions, business and the voluntary sector on a new basis of real social partnership." Alone among the parties, it seems aware that there's more to economics than tossing public money to plausible entrepreneurs. "The Government, the Public Sector, Trade Unions, Voluntary Sector and Public Representatives should combine in a working relationship."

No other party envisages a role for trade unions or the voluntary sector in the formation of economic policy. Neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin mentions the existence of trade unions.

The SDLP is the only party to state opposition to privatisation and water charges, specifically pledging to "oppose the proposal to turn the Water Service into a Government-owned Company (GoCo) as this would be a step towards privatisation."

It calls for "new, 'not-for-profit' models for investment...in public services," and suggests that "income derived (might provide) a civic dividend for more hard-pressed communities."

The document urges "major capital investment for the Belfast-Derry rail line to make certain the line remains open for future generations," and envisages the link being extended through Donegal to meet the line north from Galway.

To say that the SDLP stands to the Left of the Unionist/Sinn Féin alliance is not to say much. To say that the SDLP document is the most literate of the four submissions is to say next to nothing.

But worth saying, all the same.

September 15, 2006

This article appeared in the September 14, 2006 edition of the Belfast Telegraph.