An estimated 15,000 citizens crowded onto the streets of Belfast on Saturday 23rd October despite pouring rain to protest against the ConDem cuts, and the DUP’s willing hatchetman Sammy Wilson. The march and rally, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions under the slogan “There is a Better, Fairer Way”, was easily the biggest seen since the trade union rallies against sectarian violence. The march was also supported by the Stop the Cuts Alliance, which includes among its member organisations several trade unions, The Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party. Several ministers from the Stormont Executive – which will actually deliver the cuts in Northern Ireland – were also in attendance, from Sinn Féin and the SDLP. It remains to be seen what effect the cuts will have on the politics of Northern Ireland, but all the Executive parties are aware that they risk losing support from being associated with the cuts, and are trying to shift the blame as far away from themselves as possible.
The marchers heard music as well as speeches, with speakers from across Northern Ireland and Scotland. Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary of the ICTU, pointed out that the ConDem spin that we are all in this together and that the cuts were fair was utter rubbish. He asked whether it was fair for a cabinet of millionaires, backed by an alliance of multimillionaire businessmen, should cut over £18bn from benefit claimants; whether it was fair for banks to pay only £2.5bn in tax when they paid out over £7bn in bonuses – especially when much of that tax will be recovered from cuts in corporation tax; whether it was fair that ordinary people, especially in rural areas, are seeing massive cuts to their services; and whether it was fair that workers and public services were suffering in order to bail out the bankers who had caused the crisis, and who belong in gaol, either for wrecking the economy or for tax dodging.
Bunting also challenged the myths being promoted by the coalition about the government debt in order to try and justify this ideological attack on the welfare state. The UK, he pointed out, is the most unequal country in Europe – a 2% wealth tax on the richest 10% would raise £78bn in a year, while £123bn that should be collected in taxes are not. He pointed out that contrary to the myth about the debt – which stands at 70% of GDP – it was higher than its current level for most of the twentieth century, and that it was when it was at its peak of 250% that the Labour government created the modern welfare state in 1946. In other words, the current crisis is as much, if not more, a crisis of a failing taxation system that allows the wealth to evade their responsibilities and a government that is determined to asset-strip the government and hand publicly-owned assets and services over to the private sector to make gross profits on the backs of ordinary people.
The rally represented an important first step in the battle against the cuts. Both the local politicians and the ConDems have been served noticed that civil society and the people of Northern Ireland are not simply going to lie down and meekly accept these cuts. They will fight to protect what is rightfully theirs, and to see those who caused the crisis pay for it.
For more information see the ICTU’s dedicated People, Jobs and Services website.