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Economists didn’t like it, but we can’t afford not to listen to what Michael D Higgins had to say

We need to join the dots and see energy poverty, environmental degradation, lack of affordable housing and the rise of the far right as problems to be tackled with collective action

President Michael D Higgins’s speech at a recent event honouring TASC, Ireland’s think tank for action on social change, provoked a backlash that is still continuing. The President was criticised for not sufficiently acknowledging changes in how economics as a discipline is taught and researched, and for his use of lofty language and list of author citations, rendering his speech too academic for the public he claimed to defend.

We’ve heard a lot of views on it from economists, and since I am not one by training – I am chief executive of TASC, my PhD is in sociology and my research has focused on social policy – I will skip engaging in that debate.

But I took away something different. For me, the key message was that we need to change our priorities in policymaking and public investment. We need to move beyond a narrative dominated by economic jargon like productivity, resilience and efficiency, towards a discussion of how we adapt to living within limits essential for confronting climate change. We need to build policies around State interventions to ensure access to basic services, housing, and decent work and income. And we need to rethink the assumptions and concepts used in current policy agendas, which often treat environmental, social and economic issues as though they are separate entities.

It’s only when we make the connection between them that we can move away from a focus on generating growth first and responding to social and environmental issues later. Because in reality, one cannot be considered without the others.


If we don’t use the well-trodden argument to secure growth first, one that has justified austerity and cuts to public services and expenditure, then what do we use? The President did not push for driving up the deficit. Instead, he asked us to reconsider what “responsibility” really means in policy – namely that it cannot be reduced to fiscal prudence, but rather has to demonstrate how the structure of the economy enhances public wellbeing.

In this scenario, growing food and energy poverty, degradation of the environment, lack of affordable housing and inadequate support services for the most vulnerable members of society become policy priorities because they reflect declining wellbeing. Barnardos and other frontline service organisations have recorded increasing use over the past 18 months of food banks and noted how parents are reducing their own food and clothing expenditures to protect their children. In January, more than 6,000 people were on homecare waiting lists, and more than 3,200 had no current carer service. Homelessness has risen by more than one fifth since last year. Ireland has one of the lowest proportional rates in the EU for special land areas to protect biodiversity and possesses significant gaps in data on conservation.

What the President was rightly calling for, if I understand it correctly, is that rather than viewing growing hunger, insufficient homecare services and housing, and declining biodiversity as problems assigned to specific Government agencies fighting for their portions of the annual budget, all three would figure into a whole-of-Government policy strategy, informed by a vision of a more cohesive, more equal Irish society.

President Higgins, it seems to me, wants to compete in that space with a narrative that sees hope in collective action and, critically, people feeling that they are being heard

This approach would be the “new ecological-social model” where issues as varied as the fact that Dublin ranks worst for public transportation in Europe, the contribution of corporate profits to inflation, and current and future staffing shortages in health and social care would be assessed not just for their economic impact, but their impact on trust in Government, social solidarity and capacity to engage with long-term challenges such as climate change.

One potential example to learn from is combined citizen and Government efforts to protect biodiversity in Ireland. Years of messaging about declining species populations and EU and national initiatives (the National Parks and Wildlife Services grants) have encouraged diverse groups such as farmers, scientists, app developers and community associations to become more actively engaged in conservation. The National Biodiversity Data Centre has reported that the majority of the Irish population wants more to be done to protect the bee population, and an increasing number of people are collecting and submitting data on their own time to inform policy. What’s happening here is that divergent economic concerns are overshadowed by the shared objective of conservation. In this case, the limitation we must all live within is avoiding harm to insects or birds in need of protection, even if it means changing the way in which we do business or our lifestyles. We can only achieve this goal together, as one outlier group can damage the entire project.

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In an alternative policy model, the Government’s responsibility would be to give political meaning to these collective efforts by making them a top policy priority, a sign of the kind of Ireland the Government is striving to achieve.

Narratives in policymaking that foreground the importance of measuring economic growth and managing budgets diminish the significance of qualitative trends, like a sense of belonging, optimism and trust. But these emotions and attitudes inevitably influence politics, which has implications for economic decision-making.

We just need to look at the rise of the far right here and elsewhere, which has demonised the “deep state” and instead pushed for protectionist economic policies, restricting political participation, minimising the threat of climate change and privileging groups based on ethnicity and race. If conventional policy discourse doesn’t do enough to acknowledge frustrated dreams and ambitions at an individual and community level, then others will fill that space.

President Higgins, it seems to me, wants to compete in that space with a narrative that sees hope in collective action and, critically, people feeling that they are being heard. In research I am conducting now on how young people view politics in Ireland, I have been told repeatedly that younger generations feel ignored, that politicians don’t care “about anyone under 30″. Looking at how much responses to the President’s speech focused on a discipline rather than our future, it’s easy to see why.