Lots more going on today. We had a great meeting of the Fermanagh & South Tyrone Green Party this evening. In all the busy conversation, I completely forgot to take a photograph, so here’s one of Danielle, one of our new 2015 members, and me on our way out canvassing recently. We had a lot of positive things to discuss, including the motions that we’re going to put forward at the forthcoming Green Party in Northern Ireland AGM. There will be two of them (motions from us, that is, not AGMs) – watch this space for details.
We got home to find our optimistic mood plummeted by the news that that the notorious ‘bedroom tax’, famous for its cruel imbecility across Britain, has now been imposed in Northern Ireland. It was voted for by Sinn Fein, the DUP, UUP and Alliance, with only the SDLP, independent MLA Claire Sugden and the Green Party opposing it. Earlier in the evening, benefit sanctions up to eighteen months had been voted for by every MLA in the chamber except for Basil McCrea and our Steven Agnew.
We’re in a pretty unusual position here in Northern Ireland at the moment. We’ve watched, across the Irish Sea, the terrible effects of the coalition attack on the easiest targets: of the ‘bedroom tax’ that particularly penalises disabled people and single parents; the arbitrary ‘benefit sanctions’ that deprive people, often for no rational reason, of even the barest income; and the idiotically-administered ‘work capability tests’ that drag seriously, often terminally, ill people through months of needless anguish. We’ve seen the enormous growth in the need of ordinary people for foodbanks, the most shocking indictment of a brutal and heartless regime. And, having seen all this, the Northern Ireland Executive parties, including those who once claimed to speak for the poor and disadvantaged, have voted to bring in exactly the same cruelties here, unleavened by the slightest compassion.
And the political betrayal isn’t even over yet. When I got in, another debate on the Infrastructure Bill was taking place in the House of Commons. You’ll remember, if you read my previous post, that at its last vote in the Commons, the Bill was amended at the behest of the Labour Party to include a few tweaks. These, minor though they were, gave Labour MPs a semblance of excuse for not voting in favour of a moratorium on fracking, as proposed by Caroline Lucas and others.
What happened next could no doubt have been predicted, and probably was, by the fossil fuel industry and its willing Parliamentary pawns. The Bill went to the House of Lords, where the most important concession, that fracking should not take place in land which is located within the boundary of a groundwater source, was amended to allow that:
“4) The Secretary of State must, by regulations made by statutory
(a) the descriptions of areas which are “protected groundwater
source areas”, and
(b) the descriptions of areas which are “other protected areas”,
for the purposes of section 4A”
In other words, a ‘groundwater protection zone” would now mean, as Humpty Dumpty would approve, whatever the government chooses it to mean.
It was the crucial debate on these amendments for which, as Caroline Lucas pointed out, a measy hour of Parliamentary time was allowed. And upon which, as I have been writing this, the Commons has voted by a smallish majority (257 to 203), to follow the Lords, and remove all semblance of special protection for our drinking water from the clear and demonstrable threat of fracking contamination.
When I first switched on the BBC Parliament Channel this evening, Anne McIntosh, who would have been our MP, had we stayed in Yorkshire thirteen years ago, was speaking. She said, of the fracking and groundwater issue, that “the detail should appear on the face of the Bill” and that not to do so was to offer a “hostage to fortune”. It is true in relation to fracking, and it is just as true with regard to the NI Welfare Reform Bill, as Steven pointed out yesterday. If our elected representatives cannot be trusted to speak and vote on primary legislation that affects the most basic and essential needs of ourselves and our children, how on earth can we expect them to give proper scrutiny to secondary regulations, far outside the public gaze?
Of course we cannot. What events on both sides of the Irish Sea have shown is that only a very few are prepared to speak and vote for what they know is right. Steven Agnew and Caroline Lucas are among those few, and we in the Green Party are proud to stand beside them.