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19 January 2006 Edition

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Putting equality at the heart of the economy

Economic policy - Socialist vision pursued through rights-based strategy

Last Saturday witnessed an important milestone in the development of Sinn Féin's economic policy. A conference in Dublin, attended by Sinn Féin members, activists and public representatives from across the country, discussed a detailed draft policy document prepared by the party's Economic Policy Review Group. The discussion paper on Enterprise and Job Creation introduces Sinn Féin's vision of the economics of a united Ireland of Equals.

Sinn Féin General Secretary Mitchel McLaughlin opened the conference, saying it was important to note that the paper would be followed by two other equally detailed documents and that work was already underway towards producing discussion papers on taxation and fiscal policy and trade policy. All three documents will be complimentary, coherent statements of Sinn Féin's overall economic strategy and policy position.

The conference featured a number of workshops on various aspects of Enterprise and Trade policy raised in the document. The workshops witnessed a lively and wide-ranging exchange of views of the discussion paper and the direction of Sinn Féin's economic policy. There followed a plenary session in which all the views raised were reported and which featured a question-and-answer session with the party's spokesperson on Enterprise and Employment Arthur Morgan TD.

A range of suggestions were made during the debate, all of which will now be considered by the Economic Policy Review Group as it draws up its next draft. The document will go for ratification to the Sinn Féin Ard Fhéis next month. Once ratified it will be accessible on the Sinn Féin website.

Mitchel McLaughlin told those gathered that central to Sinn Féin's vision of a united Ireland of Equals is a clear understanding of the kind of economy that the party wants — that is, a strong economy based on equality and social justice.

"We are committed to rights based governance and a rights-based economic policy. That is how we interpret and deliver our socialist analysis and our socialist vision. We want a democratic movement, to work with others to bring about that realisation and the delivery of that vision," he said.

"The document sets out Sinn Féin's guiding principles and objectives. It is important that we process that to a point in our struggle of universal agreement and endorsement. They set out the parameters for the development of the policy itself and indeed our broad economic vision. These principles are consistent with and informed by the 1916 Proclamation, the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, Sinn Féin's current Rights for All document and the rights enumerated in the International Covenant of Human Rights on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the revised EU Social Charter, and the EU Charter of Rights and Fundamental Freedoms," said McLaughlin.

The General Secretary said that the Irish economy must serve society, not the reverse. This was the distinction between Sinn Féin and the other mainstream parties. They follow market-led diktats and imperatives whereas Sinn Féin believes that economic growth must take place in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable fashion. "We argue that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to a dignified, productive and well paid employment; the right to work in safe conditions with access to lifelong learning opportunities and vocational training a re-training; and that all workers have the right to join trade unions, negotiate contracts of employment; have the right to picket and to withhold their labour. All of that is clearly and solidly based on our socialist analysis," said McLaughlin.

The discussion paper includes an economic overview addressing the type of economy Sinn Féin wants, which is a strong, stable, all-Ireland economy where everyone can have a dignified and productive working life, a fair income and a good quality of life and an economy that is characterised by the positive redistribution of resources to eradicate poverty, social and regional disparity, and social exclusion.

Mitchel McLaughlin said that Sinn Féin challenges mainstream market orthodoxies, including the so-called 'trickle down theory'. "We reject the correlation of low taxation and low wages with competitiveness, the belief that inward investment is the panacea for economic problems and the oversimplified equation of growth with well being and social progress.

"We argue that GDP and GNP alone are not reliable indicators of social and economic advancement and that alternative indicators should be used and that the fair distribution of wealth and income is a far more effective way of dealing with poverty than the present dependence on economic growth alone; that equality pays for itself in the long term even if there is an economic factor in the investment in it; and that a stable, strong economy and society requires balance between growth and socio-economic rights."

He also said that Sinn Féin believes that prosperity based on equality can only be achieved by way of a hands-on, transparent and accountable involvement of the government in the economy and that the government should have a central role in managing the economy.

"Quality public services support and can contribute to economic development. The public sector provides equitable access to essential public services necessary for a good quality of life and the conduct of business, stable high quality employment and can also provide an alternative source of income through publicly-owned enterprises," he said.

The document discusses the economic impact of partition saying it is both inefficient and wasteful. It says that the northern economy is unsustainable by itself and cannot exist in isolation from the rest of Ireland. Mitchel McLaughlin pointed out that even the British Government had acknowledged this fact in recent days. Sinn Féin is committed to ending this inefficiency and working towards an all-Ireland economy. The party will continue to campaign and to press for the Irish Government to fulfil its all-Ireland economic commitments in the Good Friday Agreement and in the common chapter.

On Education and Training the discussion paper argues that a well developed system of rights to further one's education, including training and retraining is the key to future competitiveness and reaching the goal of full employment. Such education and retraining, it says, should not be confined to re-skilling redundant workers but should support a comprehensive strategy for lifelong learning and skills development to enable all workers to achieve their full potential.

The document also deals with the idea of enhancing the enterprise environment in the context of Sinn Féin's socialist analysis. It discusses corporation tax and attempts to set out in a coherent and comprehensive manner the argument upon which the party's policy position has been based. It says that contrary to popular belief, cutting corporation tax is not the best way to create a favourable enterprise environment. It points to comprehensive examples of an alternative approach, in particular it mentions the Nordic states which hold five of the top ten positions amongst the most competitive economies in the world. The Nordic model is high tax and high social spend and provides evidence that challenges the conventional wisdom that high corporation taxes and large social safety nets undermine competitiveness. The document also argues that it is not sustainable to compete with other states for investment by engaging in a 'race to the bottom' on corporation tax if Ireland wants to maintain and enhance the desired levels of public services and infrastructure and argues that like the Nordic states, Ireland should base its competitiveness on extensive infrastructure and comprehensive public services, social programmes and a well educated and flexible workforce.

The paper proposes a 5% increase in corporation tax in the 26 Counties, from the present 12.5% to 17.5%. It also the harmonisation of corporation tax on an all-Ireland basis.

No allusions about those who oppose us -- Morgan

Asked about the media commentary in advance of Saturday's conference Arthur Morgan TD, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Enterprise and Employment, said that media spin meant that a lot had been written about Sinn Féin's economic polices which was completely untrue. "When it was convenient for their purposes sections of the media decided that Sinn Féin had no economic policies at all, when it was expedient they decided that the party had "North Korean" economic policies, now they suggest that Sinn Féin has done a u-turn on our polices. The only consistent aspect of the media's coverage of Sinn Féin's economic policies is the inaccuracy of the reporting," Morgan said.

"At a time when the other parties in Leinster House are offering no alternatives to the economic policies being pursued by the current Government, Sinn Féin presents a critique of the failures of that economic model, a failure which has seen the state become one of the most unequal in the world, and which is characterised by a failure to achieve balanced regional development and by unsustainably low levels of investment in public services. We demonstrate the economic inefficiency and wastefulness of partition and demand that efforts to create an all-Ireland economy are progressed and intensified. We present an alternative anchored in a commitment to deliver real equality and wealth distribution," said Morgan.

"The starting point for Sinn Féin is the question 'what is the purpose of an economy?' For us, and I suspect for many people, the answer is that its purpose must be to serve society, to deliver for the people a better standard of living, the necessities required to live life with dignity, to offer equal opportunities to all and to enable everyone to participate in and benefit from the social, cultural and civic life of society.

"Sinn Féin has long opposed the economic policies pursued by the governments North and South where growth is valued for growth's sake and where people are seen as serving the economy rather than the reverse. Many of the criticisms levelled by Sinn Féin over the last decade have proved correct and we are beginning to feel to real effects of the pursuance of a neo-liberal economic model. This is felt in the onslaught on workers terms and conditions of employment, the glorification of corporate greed, the vilification of the welfare state and the public sector and the abject failure of the Celtic Tiger to 'raise all boats'.

"Those pursuing this neo-liberal model seek to maintain the state's competitiveness by engaging in a race to the bottom in terms of corporation tax and wages. The employ tactics include displacement of existing workers with migrant workers who are then subjected to exploitative pay and working conditions. Because society is seen as serving society, workers rights, and environmental standards among other things can be sacrificed in the interest of growing the economy, he said.

"Sinn Féin rejects the view that expenditure on public services is a burden on the productive sectors of the economy, and the view that the role of the state should be minimised. Our policy also reiterates our support for a vibrant, profitable and accountable public enterprise sector. We reaffirm our commitment to retain Dublin Bus and Aer Lingus in public ownership.

"Those who are benefiting most from the current system will oppose the alternative that Sinn Féin is putting forward. We have no allusions about this and we recognise that many in the media, particularly those who own the media, have benefited hugely from the status quo and will react to any attempt to create greater equality which would impinge on their ability to make excessive profits.

Once the final document is ratified at our Ard Fheis, it will be accessible to all on the Sinn Féin website and I would challenge people to read it for themselves, judge it on its merits and reject whatever spin the politically motivated sections of the media put on it."

Regional development key feature

BY JOANNE CORCORAN

A key feature of Sinn Féin's economic policy is regional development and re-generation. Donegal Sinn Féin Councillor Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was directly involved in drafting the party's All-Ireland Enter-prise and Job Creation Policy document. Mac Lochlainn spoke to An Phoblacht about the some of proposals it outlines to target economic inequality and poverty in the Northwest and Border and Midlands regions.

"One of the fundamental intents of the document is about equalising Irish society throughout the 32 Counties," Mac Lochlainn said. "It is important that all of the people on this island have the chance to avail of decent jobs close to their own homes. But in places like Donegal, the employment and the infrastructure needed to get people to jobs, is just not there.

"Donegal has the highest level of unemployment on the island. In the region as a whole, Derry and Tyrone are also statistically high in unemployment, have the highest number of early school leavers and so on. One of our key plans is to approach the economy on an all-Ireland basis, something that separates Sinn Féin from the other political parties on this island. This region and around the rest of the border has been neglected by the powers that be in London and Dublin. We are looking for a more holistic approach."

Crucial to Sinn Féin's policies are the adoption of a single currency throughout the island and the development of an efficient transport infrastructure between North and South.

"We want to see an extensive expansion of an all-Ireland rail network in the coming decades, including the re-opening of the Western Rail corridor, the Derry-Dublin rail link and the upgrading of the Derry-Belfast rail link," Mac Lochlainn said. "We also want to end the delays in cross-border road projects such as the Dublin to Belfast link and the N2/A5 route, as well as the serious underspend on road improvement projects in the 26-County BMW region and the west of the Six Counties."

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