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Peter McVerry made a simple point in a recent letter to the Irish Times. He asked if the hundred million spent on building a free flow structure on the N7 at Newlands Cross might have been better spent on accommodation for homeless people. He said he’d have been happy to wait a few minutes in his car.*

He’s talking about priorities here, how state money ought to be spent, and he’s calculating on the basis of inequality. It would be easy to confine this discussion to the degree to which motoring is favoured: There are constant complaints about the lack of Gardaí on the beat while we recently created a traffic corps; far more people die by suicide than are killed on our roads while the RSA is favoured for funding. That however is too limited an approach. The reality is that we don’t talk about priorities, and that helps keep equality and real change off the agenda.

Avoiding the issue of priority has not only made public discourse infantile but reinforces the dominant model of Irish politics, and that model is deeply conservative. What passes for public discourse involves rival claims on the public purse. It seems to be unthinkable that anyone calling for more spending in one area would be asked at whose expense it should be funded. There’s a political model in operation and it goes unquestioned. In brief the majority of journalists seem to believe that we have a “political class” with access to unlimited funds which because of stupidity or meanness, they will not spend on worthy and needy causes unless they are forced by “pressure” from civil society organisations, activists and media.** It’s quite like a peasant society in which the ruler concedes a bit here or there in order to keep the structure as it is. It’s also like the child’s misunderstanding of family finance: the little kid who thinks that parents should stop being mean and just get more money. It explains the return of support for Fianna Fáil who can once again seem to be “more in touch” and better rulers.***

The model, and the organisations, activists, journalists, elected politicians and citizens who operate it, guarantee that there can be no real change to existing structures of inequality. The view is that all spending is equally important and everyone must be treated fairly. Indeed “fairness” has become the watchword of Irish conservatism. ****

The left is hideously implicated. Leaving aside revolutionaries who view all unrest as potentially advantageous, many among the Irish left have a romantic view that all objection to tax, cutbacks, government and politics generally is progressive. The notion of discussing priorities in state spending would be dismissed as helping the government with spending cuts rather than resisting them. The idea of using cuts to assault inequality can’t get a hearing; progress has been swallowed by a conservative populism which essentially argues that the “Celtic Tiger’s” incomes and inequalities can be restored if only the rich paid more tax. Conveniently for most of the rich, they too can pose on the left because the emphasis is almost invariably on the top 1% and never on the top 20%.

Ireland needs to talk about economic inequality but not in vague terms which allow conservatives to pose as egalitarians. It’s time for socialists and other progressives to make the reduction of inequality of income the prime objective. The Labour Party now favours equality audits before budget and policy decisions ***** but the party in government continues to talk about economic recovery and fairness as if they were prime considerations, and most of the government’s harshest critics on the left share that agenda.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/speedy-aid-for-the-homeless-1.1446630
** http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/
*** http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/theres-nothing-surprising-in-the-return-of-support-for-ff/
**** http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/
***** http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/inequality-of-income-can-labour-put-it-on-the-public-agenda-and-achieve-some-reduction-while-in-government/

3 Comments

  1. You are raising a really fundamental question when you talk about equality. What exactly does it mean? All human societies and political systems lie somewhere on the continuum between the notion of pure communism and pure capitalism: everything shared equally or the the strongest take what they want. My experience of Irish Society is that most people subscribe to the notion of satisfying self interest first and from that secure position, virtuously subscribing to the notion of equality as long as it does not threaten their own position. It’s exactly the picture you paint of the peasant ruler doling out scraps to his underlings. The problem is that this attitude percolates through every level in society. The halfpenny looks down on the farthing, the penny looks down on the halfpenny, the sixpenny looks down on the penny and so on. Trade unions, for example avidly protect demarcation and differentials, making sure that the lower paid can only advance if the grades above them move up accordingly. Managers Associations, special interest groups and societies from all walks of life operate on the same principler. It seems to me that it is impossible to shift away from this attitude because it is so deeply ingrained in every facet of society and, as you say, the left, or so called left, is utterly implicated in this mode of thinking.
    On a practical level when setting out policy and budgets I think the idea of prioritising may be a more fruitful avenue to pursue rather than the concept of equality. The former is more concrete while the latter is certainly more nebulous. That is not to say that one cannot tackle the glaring inequalities of pay and rewards between different strata of society. Ultimately one needs to decide where on the continuum between the extremes of socialism and capitalism this society wants to sit.

  2. Dermot, Thanks for your comment. My position on equality is that I want to emphasise inequality of income and I think it reasonable to set targets for its reduction. The measures, the amounts and the schedule can be discussed. I argued that this become a condition for opening talks before the present coalition was formed.

    • Ireland has always had its share of bogus political ideologues and a large proportion, over the last 50 years, have been in the Labour Party.


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