South and East Belfast Sinn Féin -- Building an Ireland of Equals

Time now right to push for greater fiscal autonomy (August 2010)

Last week saw the Scottish government call for more financial powers for Scotland if they are to grow the Scottish economy in this period and tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

The call was made by Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney who criticised the current arrangements which see the Scottish government having to work within a fixed level of funding.

His comments come only weeks after the 'Calman Commission' recommended that the Scottish Government be given tax-varying powers. While the proposals which have been put forward by this Commission fall far short of what the Scottish SNP government want, and indeed would be accompanied by a decrease in the block grant for Westminster, they are significant as the it is backed by the pro-Union parties in Scotland and is viewed by many as an attempt to derail the SNP's attempts to popularise the notion of independence in Scotland.

Here we have a body which is viewed as pro-union arguing for greater fiscal powers for the Scottish government, albeit with a number of catches.

So, while all parties in Scotland, whether directly or via the 'Calman Commission', seem to be lending support to some form of greater fiscal powers for Scotland, here we in Sinn Féin are the only party that has consistently called for greater tax-varying powers for the Assembly.

Just before the last Westminster election the British Labour Party announced a budget. At that time I stated that, "The arguments for greater economic control to be developed to the hands of locally elected and responsible politicians is becoming increasingly relevant within the current economic climate."

The reality is that no British Government budget is about easing the burden of citizens here in the north; British Government policies emerging from Whitehall are not designed for the long-term benefit of the economy or citizens here in the North.

Clearly, the political parties in Scotland, to one degree or another, have grasped this reality.

This reality has only been further hammered home here with the decision by the Tory/Lib Dem British Government to make cuts of £128 million to the Assembly budget, which on top of previous cuts amounts to the Assembly budget being slashed by around half a billion pounds.

The debate that needs to happen within all of the political parties here is how do we stimulate recovery and increase spending power as mechanisms to aid the growth of the local economy when huge amounts of money is being taken out of our budget by the British Exchequer.

This debate, however, is not limited to political parties. It must involve civic society also. We all have a stake in this, from the business sector, the community sector, and Trade Unions.

That is why we welcome the support for tax-varying powers expressed by Esmond Birnie Chief Economist with PricewaterhouseCooper's (PwC) and former UUP Assembly Member.

It is generally accepted that the Tory/Lib.Dem coalition will impose severe cuts to the Executive finances and it is imperative that we take measures to mitigate against the worst effects of these cuts.

I believe that an effective way of being more in control of our economic destiny is having the ability to raise finance. One of the essential tools to achieve this is tax-varying powers. I call on all parties in the Assembly, and groups in civic society, to now seriously examine the need for fiscal powers that will assist us in mapping the way forward for our economy. In Scotland they clearly see this as the way forward, why not here?