Image: Inside the Stormont chamber
By Brian Pelan, VIEW editor
There is a first for everything in life
I made a ‘first’ today when I sat in the Press gallery at Stormont to listen to a debate on a Private Members’ Motion which concerned cuts in the community/voluntary sector in Northern Ireland.
I was surprised to see the lack of any community/voluntary groups outside Stormont buildings as I was expecting to run into hundreds of angry protesters with banners that denounced the cuts.
Because nothing concentrates the minds of MLAs as thousands of protesters denouncing their actions.
My expedition to find the Press gallery is a story in itself. Eventually I was ‘rescued” by a member of the Stormont Communications team who led me to the room which overlooks the chamber.
I expected to encounter a host of other journalists in the gallery but only met members of the Stormont TV team. I don’t envy their job of watching and recording those debates every day.
The motion, tabled by Ulster Unionist MLAs Robin Swann, Roy Beggs and Sandra Overend, read: “That this Assembly notes the important role of the community and voluntary sector across Northern Ireland in providing effective, efficient and value for money frontline services; accepts that, as a consequence of the 2015-16 Budget, decisions are being made by individual Executive Departments with no consideration of the impact on these services or the effect that they will have on the vulnerable in society; further notes that the ambiguity surrounding the European Social Fund has also forced many organisations to reduce their staff and their operations; and calls on the Executive to act in a coordinated manner to ensure that the sector and its organisations receive the required level of support and funding allocations.”
Only around 20 to 22 MLAs turned up for the debate which was long on words but short on solutions.
The arguments seems to hang around the unspoken concept that less cuts should be made in the community/voluntary sector which would be balanced by more cuts made in government departments.
We had a range of speakers who, mostly, broadly welcomed the motion, but had different explanations for the ‘culprits’ behind the cuts.
The most ‘lively’ intervention (and I use that word with a healthy dose of irony) was from DUP MLA Sammy Wilson.
The main focus of his intervention was an attack on Sinn Fein and the SDLP for agreeing to delay the implementation of the Welfare Reform Act.
Mr Wilson said: “I know that Sinn Féin and the SDLP especially love to put all of this at the door of Tory cuts, but let us look at some of the facts. The £900,000 cut to the arts budget is half the amount of money that we lose each day in Northern Ireland because of the ideological position adopted by Sinn Féin and the SDLP to welfare reform.
“It is one thing to rant and rave about these reductions, but what are the kinds of things that we can do? We cannot magic money out of thin air. If it is not there, it is not there. That is why I believe that the first thing that we ought to be doing is challenging some of the budget cuts….`”
Mr Wilson also accused the SDLP and Sinn Fein of “burying their heads in the economic sands”.
Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey was quick to hit bark at Mr Wilson’s remarks. “It is a bit unfortunate that, following on from the rest of the very positive contributions, we have now had two Members who have introduced discordant notes into the debate. I would have thought that this was an opportunity for all of us to put our colours to the mast in supporting the community and voluntary sector in its quest to have some certainty and stability around future funding.”
Later in the debate, the Ulster Unionist MLAs, who moved the motion, agreed with Mr Wilson’s intervention that Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s position on presently opposing the Welfare Reform Act had cost money in terms of fines being imposed by Westminster.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said: “I am astounded by the approach taken by Bronwyn McGahan (Sinn Fein MLA), who is no longer in the Chamber. In her speech, she said that this was all the Tories’ fault. We are a devolved Assembly. We have to take decisions based on the hand that is dealt to us, and we must take decisions to try to better our community. Frankly, why are you involved in politics if you are going to blame somebody else for everything? We have to be responsible for ourselves, and we have to operate within our financial budget.”
The motion was eventually passed. Meanwhile the community/voluntary sector is still suffering from job losses, front-line services scaled back and the prospect of more cuts to come.
Welcome to Stormont debates where individual MLAs criticise cuts – some blame it all on the Tories – while their own ministers implement the cuts.
Truly we live in strange times.