Cuts ‘will worsen sectarianism’, says union chief

Strikers on the streets on Friday morning
Strikers on the streets on Friday morning

Public spending cuts in Northern Ireland will make sectarian divisions worse, a trade union leader has claimed.

The head of the union Unite in Ireland, which covers healthcare workers, addressed a mass rally in Belfast city centre.

Jimmy Kelly said in a speech Stormont politicians could not grow the economy by cutting public services.

He said: “Austerity will devastate Northern Ireland’s economy – an economy underpinned by public sector consumption.

“Austerity will only exacerbate sectarian divisions, pitting one community against the other in a desperate contest for resources.”

The overall spending power of the power-sharing ministerial Executive has fallen by more than £1 billion since 2010, Stormont Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has said.

He has warned next year’s budget for the day-to-day running of public services has been reduced by 1.6 per cent in real terms, meaning the ability to pay for services like schools and hospitals has been curtailed when demand for those and other services remains high.

Office for Budget Responsibility projections suggest Northern Ireland could see its funding for services fall by a further 13 per cent in real terms by the end of the decade.

Proponents of the Stormont House Agreement, including Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, have argued it will rebalance an economy heavily dependent on public subsidy to encourage the growth of businesses.

A union message to protesters at rallies across Northern Ireland said big business would benefit from a corporation tax cut but claimed there would be no guarantees of new jobs.

Mr Kelly said: “We do not accept blaming the Tories is a justification for administering these cuts. Our local political leaders are joined at the hip in their demand for the power to slash corporation tax rates through decimating funding for public services by, at the very least, a further £325 million a year.

“All the Stormont parties are agreed on devastating cuts to public services to fund a race to the bottom with places like the British Virgin Islands for global tax haven status.”

Mr Kelly added: “The sight of our political elite prescribing austerity as the cure for a weak economy is reminiscent of medieval doctors prescribing blood-letting as a cure for the plague. It will only make things worse.

“Such policies will freeze-dry the very feeble green shoots of economic recovery.

“In case those up on the hill haven’t noticed, Northern Ireland has just lapsed back into recession after a brief few months of growth coming after five years of depression. This is no recovery for ordinary workers.”

The trade unionists called for investment in quality jobs and a “living wage” for all workers as well as the safeguarding of local community services and a sustainable public transport service.

They said the welfare system should meet needs, not targets.