In the wake of the RHI crisis, inquiry and institutional clean up, there is little political capital left for such government schemes to ever be run again. The scheme was designed to tackle an existential issue of our time; the climate crisis. Yet not only did it monumentally fail in this aim, but it ended up wrapped up in a scandal that has led to a governmental hiatus of 3 years. Hardly an advertisement for promoting a new scheme? The RHI scheme was planned to be a launch pad for other environmental incentives including the doomed domestic scheme (suspended February 2016).
Unlike the RHI, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all would be a scheme to end all welfare schemes – not a launch pad for other schemes. Amongst the list of existential issues of our times are the egregious rates of inequality, particularly in an already divided society like Northern Ireland. The template varies depending on who is the advocate but the basics are that firstly, it would be universally without means testing and paid to every citizen, secondly it would be at an agreed weekly/monthly rate just above the poverty line, and finally (arguably most controversially) it would replace the post-war ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state (Rutger Bregman breaks it down most succinctly).
‘Divided society’ is one of those post-agreement era tropes often wielded by those most interested in exploiting the very same division. It’s not just the Green/Orange politics of old but also the vast ‘Peace & Co’ industry which has emerged, beaming from the conflict, largely due to EU peace funding and traditional public grants from Westminster initiatives or Stormont sponsored schemes.
As noted from the RHI experience, the vast administrative burden is not just on welfare here. There are a network of organisations here known in politico talk as ‘arm’s length’ bodies. On the Assembly website there is a 22 page long list of such quangos, all of them benefitting from the public purse. A crude inspection of the NI Budget Bill that was on the order paper (for a now dissolved House of Commons) shows that our Department for Communities budget is considerably lower to the Department for Economy budget (coming in at circa 200m and 400m respectively) – it was passed just before dissolution. The former department is responsible for welfare spending, although many are still directly paid by the Treasury, and the latter sponsors many of the schemes and quangos on that 22 page list.
Constitutionally, welfare is still somewhat ‘semi’ devolved. With the Treasury placed sanctions on the previous Stormont administration for delaying the full implementation of Tory reforms, there is often little political room for manoeuvre even when there are legal means for Stormont to act. Even Sinn Fein buckled and waived them through despite the immense pressure of People Before Profit and others biting into their core vote. The Fresh Start Agreement 2015 ‘sealed the deal’.
Any NI basic income proposal would need to come with a suite of fiscal powers not currently within the gift of the Stormont legislature. For a fiscal breakdown I will point to an excellent Slugger O’Toole piece from 2015 which calculated that Northern Ireland would need to make up somewhere in the region of £3bn per year if such a proposal where to take place on existing models (“£51.60 per week for under 16s and £172 per week for over 16s, would cost £12.565bn after netting off employers’ NI contributions and an increase in VAT revenues, including £25m on administrative savings…The Northern Ireland Executive currently spends £8.16bn on benefits and pensions…[after removal of the tax free allowance, the gap is £3bn] - Peter Donaghy (Salmon of Data)).
This would be a UBI proposal which is much more generous than any current welfare benefit and more modest figures could be sought (Compass report). Implementation, which would include scrapping many and eventually all benefits, would need to be phased much more carefully than Universal Credit and an analysis on inflation will be needed if prices are to remain stable.
The massive social shift for such redirection of resources would be even more interesting than potential inflationary or fiscal pressures. I would like to see all peace funding redirected in part or in full into funding such an initiative, as people are the real infrastructure that make an economy and a nation operable. People in deprived communities who have never truly been invested in the Peace Process, be it because of failed segregated education, dilapidating health services because of thinly stretched budgets or the un-tackled legacy of gerrymandering (including legitimate but failed post war planning).
If the ‘Peace & Co’ industry where to stand on its own feet then it could have a true renaissance for these organisations to actually achieve their goals. Think of it for just a second, imagine instead of the organisation with the greatest ability to secure grants (by either being impressive form fillers or using political connections) being the most successful, we had organisations of individuals who have been freed from a nine to five by the UBI where they can afford more flexible hours to volunteer their time towards community projects. The impact would be that instead of professional ‘peace builders’ we would instead have those incentivised by a willingness to actually make change and not in search of an enriching grant opportunity. Think of, at present, the many voluntary organisations in receipt of no public money being run by pensioners and the self-employed – they are the true peace builders!
I have no intention to disparage. Many of these organisations do fantastic work. But within such a framework it is impossible to avoid the creation of a ‘false economy’ whereby a new class of ex-civil servant types become board members which vote through salaries bankrolled by public funds. Evidenced based organisations have more of a claim to legitimacy, but even then it can be difficult to truly measure the direct impact of such work – especially in working class and deprived areas where the conflict had its roots. This is why talk of ‘civil society’ is often code for more grants and more middle class jobs, none of which help those most in need. According to Institute for Government their role has actually increased since the Stormont hiatus.
What saddens me greatly is that it has now become politically mainstream to talk of the peace dividend never materialising. The rhetorical dividend has materialised, at least for people like me, in that I can now work for an international firm and work with people on a global level on exciting projects from my desk in Belfast (brought about by a normalising economy). These are opportunities still not open to all in society, imagine the emancipation of an unconditional payment for those struggling in full time education or low paid training. Factories seem to be closing monthly and services work is becoming more precarious in the face of global events such as Brexit or US tariffs, why not free our people from the risk aversion of work as we have largely freed ourselves from the drudgery of work with computing technology?
Perhaps what will force this up the agenda is the end of welfare mitigations next March in NI. When we feel the pinch of the bedroom tax on our social housing sector and the full implementation of universal credit across the country then people may look around for something better. Something which might seem far from the cul-de-sacs and golf clubs, but as the lack of an economic multiplier from welfare kicks in they will soon feel the pinch. Although the basic income has been largely experimental, the original Welfare State of the Beveridge report or even the creation of a progressive taxation system where largely theoretical until they were tried – let’s at least try.
Jay is a 24 year old from Derry and has just completed a Masters at QUB. He has written for Slugger O'Toole on politics and is a fiercely Pro-EU Liberal.