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.