John McDonagh (JM) and Sandy Boyer (SB) interview via telephone award-winning journalist and author Ed Moloney (EM) about the political and economic details of the new agreement at Stormont called A Fresh Start. Thanks to TPQ transcriber who puts an enormous effort into making these available to our readers.
Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
21 November 2015
(begins time stamp ~ 22:45)
SB: We have with us Ed Moloney, the author of A Secret History of the IRA. Ed, thanks very much for being with us.
EM: No problem, Sandy.
SB: Ed, as you predicted Stormont is making a fresh start. And the good news is no Stormont politician's going to miss a pay cheque which I guess to them is the most important thing.
EM: Well, it certainly seems to be and some of the pay cheques are very, very generous indeed. I mean there are these officials called Special Advisers (SpAds) who are employed by the political parties. A minister, for example, would have his own team of Special Advisers. They are on a salary, would you believe, of ninety thousand British pounds a year - add half of that on and you get the dollar equivalent. So they're earning salaries in Belfast of a hundred and thirty five thousand dollars - and that's before you get to expenses and stuff like that. So it's a great big gravy train and it was the reason why I always thought at the end of the day a deal would be made and that you would see the Stormont Assembly up and running again because they're just doing too well out of it – a lot of these people.
SB: Well Ed, they may be doing well but some other people are not going to be doing so well under this this deal and it's been described as taking from the poor and giving to the rich. I mean we used to have a talk here about soaking the rich – well this is soaking the poor – big time!
EM: Yes, absolutely. And while you're not surprised at some of the parties aligning themselves with policies like this - I mean, the unionist parties, both the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party, are both also very conservative parties. They are there – they would vote in the same lobbies in the British House of Commons as the Tory party and they have the same sort of outlook economically as the Tories do. But the real surprise I suppose is that when you see people like the SDLP, to a lesser extent actually than Sinn Féin, aligning themselves with policies which are associated with the very, very harsh austerity regime which has been introduced in London by the Cameron government. And the most of course surprising, or I guess some people might say disappointing, aspect of all of this is to see Sinn Féin doing this and they've done it in what I think you would have to describe as not the bravest way – in fact quite a cowardly way. Rather than pass the welfare reforms themselves, which are being imposed on them by the British incidentally, they have said: Well, we don't want to actually get our hands dirty voting for these things so we will allow Westminster to do this for us.
So here you have Sinn Féin, which fought for this Good Friday Agreement which was all about making some sort of separation between the British and Northern Ireland by having a separate Parliament – I know it's a Unionist Parliament – but this is the argument that was made – a separate Parliament which would have its own rights and powers etc which maybe in the future would grow in terms of its power-making, legislation powers and power over the economy and so on and so forth, and you could make an argument that here was a mustard that might at some stage grow into something which could make an alliance with the Parliament and society in the South of Ireland. And here they were actually handing back these powers to Westminster primarily because they did not want to have their own fingerprints on these massive welfare reforms - and reform of course is the wrong word to use - these are very, very harsh cutbacks.
And to sort of give your listeners an idea of a sort of an equivalent over here in the United States: the population of Northern Ireland is almost the same as the population of the Bronx – I think it's 1.4 million in the Bronx and 1.6 million in Northern Ireland - so they're very, very close. And these cuts, which involve like a loss of seven thousand public sector jobs and cuts in expenditure in all sorts of areas from health, to education, social services, etc etc would be the equivalent – the measurements vary depending upon which economist is talking - but at the very minimum it's going to cost each individual in Northern Ireland, ie the Bronx, four hundred dollars at the very minimum – at a maximum it's going to cost them seven hundred and fifty dollars each year for the next seven or eight years. That's a huge slice out of people's incomes when they are already, in a place like Northern Ireland, already desperately poor and very probably unemployed and so on and so forth.
Now these were measures that Sinn Féin said they would never support. And of course, the way they have been able to do this is to pass the buck onto the British to do their dirty work for them. And the reason for it of course was that they are fighting in The South in the Dublin elections, the General Election which is likely to be sometime in the early new year, probably February, just in time for the Easter 2016 Centenary celebrations, and that election which Sinn Féin hope to do well – well, they're fighting on an anti-austerity ticket, presenting themselves to the electorate in The South as being against things like welfare cuts and against the sort of austerity policies of the Fine Gael government, which are very, very similar to the British Tories. And for them to be associated with the welfare cuts in Northern Ireland would give all their opponents in The South a very large stick with which to beat them on the grounds of hypocrisy. So in order to try get round this – this is the other reason for passing the buck onto the British - and let the British implement the welfare reforms and give up some political and economic power to the British in return for maybe not leaving themselves vulnerable to attack and criticism in The South – so that's what it's really all about.
SB: But Ed, as you say, everybody's going to be hurt but some people are going to be hurt more. For example, if you're disabled and you're getting an allowance for being disabled, that is going to be cut. If you have children and were getting an allowance for that – that's going to be cut. And if you are a new tenant, if you rent a flat as they say, an apartment or a house, you're going to be hit with a nice new tax so...
EM: ...Yes, which is called a Bedroom Tax if you could believe it; it's based on the number of bedrooms that are spare in a house that are not being used – the more spare bedrooms or empty bedrooms you have in a house - the higher this tax will be. And it seems sort of reminiscent of the old eighteenth century window tax – it's one of the reason why you see an awful of blocked up windows in Georgian buildings in cities like Dublin is because the more window space you had the more tax you had to pay – well it's now the equivalent of that is bedrooms. And it's not being imposed to current residents but as and from the moment that this legislation is passed it applies to new tenants and really what it's going to do is add another crippling burden on - you know, let's say a working class family's got a two or three bedroom house and have three or four or five kids – those kids eventually grow up – they become sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and they leave home - those bedrooms are now empty - the parents are then taxed on the basis of these empty bedrooms. Quite extraordinary really but this is what is happening and as you say it is the poorest in The North that are going to be hit hardest. And you know, even the SDLP, which is now under a new leader and we'll wait and see how that's going to work out for them, are taking a very much more radical line on this than Sinn Féin, criticising Sinn Féin for backing these welfare cuts.
Other people, Eamonn McCann for example and the party that he's associated with, People Before Profit, issued a statement saying that Sinn Féin have now joined the list of pro-austerity parties in the British and Irish political systems. I think it's going to hurt Sinn Féin - certainly in the short term - that and of course the failure to deal with the past in any substantive and meaningful way.
SB: I do want to get into that but Ed, some people are going to do very, very well off this. The multinational corporations are going to be making out like bandits.
EM: Yes, that's right. Another aspect of this agreement is that while disabled people who before this legislation, before this agreement, would have been entitled to all sorts of quite generous help - and I was a recipient of this generous help when I lived in Northern Ireland being disabled myself – generous help in terms of getting help with transportation and so on and so forth – that's going to go for an awful lot of people. And if you're disabled and you suddenly find that your means of getting from A to B have been taken away from you that's a big, big burden to carry. That will happen to those people but meanwhile the large multinational corporations can now come to Northern Ireland, pay less corporation tax than they would have to pay if they set up in London or Birmingham or Manchester and that's a huge giveaway for a lot of these corporations. Yes, I mean it's quite an extraordinary budget for radical parties to associate themselves with.
JM: Ed, to go back to that corporate tax – I was fortunate to meet the Irish Consul a couple of months ago and I brought up: How do you feel about Sinn Féin in The Six Counties going to be lowering their corporation tax rate in order to bring business from The Twenty-Six Counties to The Six Counties whereby affecting their economy? And she gave me some wild story about - Well, this is a global economy – this is the way things work. But here is actually Sinn Féin trying to take away some of the tax base within The Twenty-Six Counties and bring it up to that part. I mean it's just so bizarre what's going on and what they want to have done.
EM: Indeed, yes indeed. And of course they will also argue as that lady that you spoke to will argue that this is really about bringing in new investment from other parts the globe. Investors coming to the island of Ireland now will now ponder: should they go North or should they go South? Whereas before it was straightforward - they would have gone to The South because corporation tax is lower there. But again, the experience of these companies who are given these tax holidays you know demonstrates that after they have enjoyed the benefits of these breaks etc and they've as it were suck the fruit dry - they'll leave pretty soon. They'll leave as soon as their interests dictate that they should go somewhere else where the tax is even lower. So it's by no means a guarantee of long term prosperity.
SB: (Station identification) We're talking to Ed Moloney, the author of A Secret History of the IRA. And Ed, why did Sinn Féin do this, I mean apart from keeping their pay cheques, why did they do this? Did they have to?
EM: No. It's because they don't have any ideology. And what I mean by ideology is an economic ideology – a social ideology - something that would allow you to describe them as being left-wing or right-wing. And I base this on almost a lifetime, a journalistic lifetime at least, of experience covering Sinn Féin and I came to the conclusion a long, long, long time ago that they really don't - aside from being anti-British, aside from being anti-the Unionist state - being more defenderist rather than Republican I have to say – aside from that they really had more no distinctive economic/social philosophy aside from making alliances, going in directions which would give them immediate benefit. So, for example, when in the mid 1970's when the Republican struggle was under considerable pressure and the IRA was facing defeat and Sinn Féin was a little bit directionless they made alliances with Trotskyist parties – left, right and centre. And by alliances I mean that they would talk to these parties and they would meet them and come together for campaigns and so on and so forth. And where are they now? They have alliances with billionaire fat cats in Manhattan. Why? Because it benefits them in the same way as the alliance with the Trotskys - the small, tiny Trotskyites groups in the 1970's - gave them a lifeline, a political lifeline, they followed it for that reason – not because they believed or had any sympathy for the policies that were being espoused by these groups but because it was a way of surviving.
And I think essentially what you're seeing now – you know a few years ago, to give you an example, not that long ago I can remember Sinn Féin proclaiming in the The South of Ireland that they were a pro-business party. And also one of their leading members said the party had no problem with capitalism. Now they have an enormous problem with capitalism – why? Because that's the way to get votes. And that's what I mean – they have no ideology they only go in the direction that is best for them to prosper, to grow, to become larger and eventually to get into power but aside from that I think there's a basic conservatism there but in terms of having strong left-wing beliefs? No, forget about it. The beliefs that they have at the moment in terms of the austerity agenda are entirely about the votes that they will gain as a result.
SB: Well Ed, thank you very much. We've been talking to Ed Moloney, the author of A Secret History of the IRA, and about why no Stormont politician is going to miss a pay cheque and I suppose that's very good news.
EM: For those who are getting the pay cheques.
SB: Okay Ed, thank you very much.
EM: No problem.
(ends time stamp ~ 38:33)