As the Scottish independence referendum approaches, most polls and observers suggest that the Yes campaign will just fall short but at the same time secure of greater devolution to Holyrood. Against this backdrop, Northern Ireland Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has given the strongest indication yet that the Tory-led government is prepared to hand Stormont the power to reduce corporation tax for the region. The relative absence of a debate around this issue in the Assembly is a reflection of the consensus between all five Executive parties’ on cutting the tax. Only the Green Party has voiced opposition to a reduction in the headline rate, while the local media has proved unable or unwilling to facilitate a serious discussion about its merits and demerits.
It is not surprising that the UUP and DUP are giving this proposal their uncritical support. The former is a local embodiment of Toryism with a tendency for highly conservative social views. The latter gives representation to an aspiring middle and petit bourgeoisie and with every new scandal that transpires the stench of shysterism emanating from the party grows stronger. Both purport to represent large sections of the Protestant working class, yet have enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of introducing welfare reforms that will remove up to £750m annually from the local economy. Not only will these cuts hit Northern Ireland harder than other regions of the UK, but disadvantaged areas are on course to suffer the biggest loss per adult of working age. The two Unionist parties are concerned that Stormont may lose approximately £100m this year in fines for its failure to introduce welfare reforms, but are prepared to countenance the much more devastating cut that anything close to full implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill will bring about. This says something about the ideological position of mainstream Unionism and its contempt for the working class.
The increasingly polarised nature of the welfare reform debate is an apt demonstration of how Sinn Féin’s electoral success presents an opportunity and a problem for the party. By adopting an austerity-critical approach in the South, it has managed to capitalise on working-class disenchantment with a toothless Labour Party and emerge, along with socialists and independents in the Dáil, as the most vocal opponents of Fine Gael’s class war. At the same time, there is pressure on the northern Executive to introduce Tory cuts in the manner of a regional council. It is widely believed that, with the support of senior figures such as Alex Maskey and Eoin Ó Broin, Gerry Adams intervened to ensure that his colleagues in the North reversed an earlier decision to endorse parts of the Welfare Reform Bill. Various media reports suggest that this is the reason for Leo Green’s acrimonious departure from Stormont, where he held the position of key Sinn Féin strategist.