By Brian Pelan, editor, VIEWdigital
Austerity, Jeremy Corbyn and Manchester United were all on the agenda when I recently interviewed Ulster University professor and BBC commentator Deirdre Heenan at the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast.
Our discussion centred around the Heenan-Anderson report – which she was commissioned to write with businessman Colin Anderson by the former Northern Ireland Labour Party shadow secretary Ivan Lewis.
I was curious to know does she think that the the report will now gather dust since Mr Lewis was replaced in his post by Vernon Coaker – part of the changes that took place after Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory in the Labour Party leadership contest.
“We are heartened by the response we had to the report, particularly from the political parties in Northern Ireland,” said Professor Heenan. “I think key issues in the report will be lifted and run with in terms of their manifestos. As far as we are concerned, we were asked to do a piece of work, we’ve completed that piece of work and we hope it will be used as a resource for political parties.”
The report is wide-ranging and aspirational about the need for early intervention and a change in policy direction from Stormont in how it tackles issues such as poverty and low educational attainment figures for people living in areas of high social deprivation.
Given the present climate of austerity, I pressed her on how this could take place, given that many working class people are being subjected to cuts, including in the area of welfare benefits.
“There is a debate going on around austerity,” said Ms Heenan. “But when we were writing the report the majority of people reported back to us that we need to live within our means. We have a devolved government and we have signed up for government. We are given money (a block grant) from the British Government and we have to decide priorities within it. That’s what governing is about; it’s not simply saying ‘we don’t like this and we want more money’. It’s about how we would spend this money and how we would spend it most efficiently.”
Although she is a supporter of a corporation tax cut, she argued that “corporation tax in itself cannot be a panacea for the economic ills in Northern Ireland. If corporation tax is devolved it must come as part of a package. That package should be around supporting skills and the development of skills at all levels, including apprenticeships. It should not be implemented without this package in place, it has to be part of this.”
We also touch upon her views on the role that the community/voluntary sector should play in addressing social deprivation.
Ms Heenan said: “A large part of this sector is carrying out excellent work in their own communities and they are committed to their own communities. But their funding structure is just too precarious, it’s short-term and lacks core funding.
“The terms and conditions for those who work in the community/voluntary sector should be improved. How can you encourage people to see the value of their work if they can clearly see that the terms and conditions they are being offered means that they don’t feel valued. If you are going to talk the talk about the importance of work then the terms and conditions need to be there.”
She said she is planning to raise the report with Vernon Coaker. “ I am organising a meeting with him to discuss how we can take this report forward. I don’t think the change of personnel will make a big difference to what we are saying.”
As the interview drew to a close we discussed how we were both in complete agreement on two subjects – our mutual love for Manchester United and Nordic TV dramas, especially Borgen.
Time will tell whether the Heenan-Anderson report is given a new lease of life or fades away into political obscurity.