Last night I went to the Assembly Buildings, what we used to call Church House, to listen to what seemed like many speeches about Welfare Reform. Some prefer to say ‘welfare cuts’, which they are. I don’t think anyone denied that. It was momentous because Cardinal Sean Brady followed the Moderator to the podium and there he delivered a strong, hard-hitting, deeply theological speech reflecting on the Christian calling to protect the weak, to care for widows and orphans and strangers and foreigners. He spoke with authority drawing heavily on the text of Scripture and pointing us back to our roots in the Mosaic Law. His challenge was clear and reminded me of all those times in history when the church was faithful and energetic and radical. So in history Christian people challenged slavery, brought the need for education to light and began that provision and in many others ways today responds to the social needs around us – addiction, homelessness and the like. Of course we have to admit that Christians haven’t always got it right. I’m not wanting to deny that but rather to point to the times when somehow the Church was so in step with the wind of the Spirit that change happened. So thanks to Cardinal Brady for the inspiration.
It is not so easy to maintain enthusiasm when it comes to the rest of the evening. The Secretary of State began by reminding us that the Conservative Government is not responsible for the mess we are in – an argument that begins to run thin and suggests that here we have a coalition which is unwilling to shoulder responsibility and when it can will shunt that off somewhere else. When asked for figures he had to be pushed because, as he point out, that wasn’t his job but the task of Stormont. That is true but the framework of commentary from some either ivory tower or place of purity which points to the responsibilities that others have is one that can only weaken an argument or in this case a proposition that what is intended by the reform is the development of a culture of work. And who would want to argue with that? But still it didn’t feel right and it didn’t sound right and the majority of the audience seemed unsettled.
Thanks to the panel from Salvation Army, Citizen’s Advice, Board of Social Witness, St Vincent de Paul and Skainos who brought real lives and real stories into the picture. Thanks especially to Glenn Jordan for doing the joined up thinking and reminding us that yes there is a welfare budget but it isn’t decided in a vacuum. It is decided among the other choices that governments make including choices for submarines to carry nuclear weapons at a cost of… several years of welfare. So the choices are there and they are to be examined if we are to make any headway. Jobs will have to be created if we are going to grow a society of people that want to work. This is not simple territory and if everyone is to discover their potential and live that potential then more radical root and branch change is going to be needed.