Fintan O’Toole on an astonishing ideological volte-face

‘Maybe we’ve just seen the greatest ideological reversal in Irish politics. I genuinely hope so’

Who wrote this scathing attack on the nature of the Irish State?

"We have previously enjoyed and wasted prosperity before. While Ireland has been a wealthy country for a generation, the gap between rich and poor has remained far too large. Even before the economic collapse, Ireland had the highest rate of jobless households in Europe, facilitated by educational disadvantage, poor childcare, and a passive social welfare system that failed to offer people the supports and training needed for work. Scandals about historic and ongoing abuse and neglect of children, the elderly, racial minorities and the disabled and others have long been an indictment of the motivation and capacity of our State and non-State institutions to include vulnerable groups in our economic and social progress."

I couldn’t have put it better or more brutally myself, but it wasn’t me. And in truth I don’t know who wrote it. But I know where you can find it: in the draft programme for government that was the basis for Enda Kenny’s re-election as Taoiseach.

And it is startling stuff – the incoming government is essentially saying previous governments (including the last one headed by that Enda Kenny fellow, whoever he was) presided over massive inequalities and the continuing abuse of vulnerable citizens, including children, the elderly, people with disabilities and racial minorities, because they lacked the "motivation" to tackle them. In other words, Government acknowledges that the State and other powerful institutions haven't bothered to be get serious about poverty, abuse and inequality.



I’m going to indulge in some wild speculation and guess that no one from the Fine Gael side wrote this. But they did agree to it and that in itself is an unprecedented act of self-criticism. And maybe it’s real, maybe we’ve just seen the greatest ideological reversal in the history of Irish politics. I genuinely hope so. I want to believe that the appointment of

Katherine Zappone

as Minister for Children and the reasonably substantial (if somewhat scattered) commitments to tackle child poverty in the programme for government just might be a watershed moment.

Glaring absence

But then I look for some of the basic things that might indicate a seriousness about poverty and inequality and they’re just not there. The first glaring absence is a simple commitment that each of the three budgets the new administration is to be allowed, unlike all five budgets introduced by the last government, will be progressive. It’s not a very hard commitment to make – using the budget to balance out social inequalities, even a little bit, is a standard democratic policy. The refusal to make this commitment is even weirder in the context of the language just quoted.

Secondly, the programme has a very welcome commitment to open up the process of forming the budget. (So, of course, did the last programme for government, but let's be optimistic.) What it does not say, though, is that the new process will include a public assessment of the full distributional implications of the budget before it is finalised. This is the single most important procedural change that would enhance social justice – and is one that Michael Noonan as Minister for Finance has stubbornly resisted.

Again, its absence raises questions about the Government’s “motivation”.

Thirdly, there is no plan to tackle the most flagrant expression of inequality between citizens – that public patients can wait 20 times longer for crucial diagnostic tests than private patients. In the face of an apartheid system that openly values the lives of those with money above those without, the new Government promises, pathetically, that “the Oireachtas Committee on Health will be asked to invite stakeholders and outside experts to hearings on how best to move forward”.

Fourthly, there will be no social justice without tax transparency – including the requirement for transnational corporations to actually pay the 12.5 per cent tax rate they tell us they find so attractive. The programme’s language on tax transparency is risible: “We will maintain Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporation tax, and engage constructively with any measures to work towards international tax reform, while critically analysing proposals that may not be in Ireland’s long-term interests.” Translation: please don’t ask us to say anything about any of this.

Local democracy

Lastly, there’s a lovely phrase in the programme – it says “community empowerment” is necessary for a sustainable economy. So somebody who had a hand in the writing of the document understands that neither a vibrant economy nor a just society will be possible unless people get power to make real decisions in their own communities.

The key to political reform is genuine local democracy. But beyond an extremely vague promise of more powers for local authorities (not at all the same as more democracy), there’s nothing.

It would be great to think that the new Government really has had a Damascene conversion, that it now recognises, as it claims to do, the abusive ways in which the State has treated the citizens that depend on it most. But its programme reads like somebody blurting out awkward truths and then, appalled at the implications, shrinking back into silence.