Fintan O’Toole: social injustice grew during austerity

Ireland was one of the worst EU countries at preserving fairness in face of recession

 Finance Minister Michael Noonan (left) with Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos Jurado:  of the 28 EU countries, the three that did worst on social justice are Ireland, Spain and Greece Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Finance Minister Michael Noonan (left) with Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos Jurado: of the 28 EU countries, the three that did worst on social justice are Ireland, Spain and Greece Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty


As we pick over the bones of the great recession, we get headlines like “Austerity Ireland’s biggest victim: self-employed middle-class.” This one was from the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, over an accurate and interesting report on work by Christopher Whelan. That work finds, perhaps not surprisingly, that the social group that suffered most in the recession is the non-farming self-employed. It usefully confirms what most of us would have guessed anyway. When a construction boom collapses, the white van people – carpenters, plasterers, plumbers, painters and so on – are going to be devastated. So are people with small niche businesses.

The problem is that this reality is easily distorted into a wildly inaccurate version of recent history: the implication that those who were already at the bottom have nothing to complain about because they didn’t fall as far. The very real plight of the self-employed should not distract us from a stark truth: austerity as it was implemented made Ireland a much more unjust society. And it didn’t have to be like this. The great recession was managed here in such a way as to make the country more socially unjust than it was even in 2008 when the bubble economy was producing such extremes of wealth at the top of Irish society.

The great recession and the euro crisis hit every European Union country. How did those countries manage in terms of social justice and how does Ireland compare? We can actually answer this question because the German-based Bertelsmann Foundation publishes a very rigorous annual index of social injustice in the EU, using a broad set of objective measures. The most recent report was published last week and Ireland comes out of it, in general, very badly.  

Bad decisions

The Bertelsmann index comes up with an overall number for social injustice in each EU country. And if you compare this year’s index with that for 2008, it’s quite striking that most countries in the EU managed to get through the last eight years without making social injustice very much worse than it already was. The countries that were doing well in 2008 ( Sweden, Finland, Denmark) became slightly more unjust but not much. Some countries – the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, even the UK – became slightly more just. But of the 28 EU countries, the three that did worst are Ireland, Greece and Spain. If we were to rank the EU countries in how well they managed to stop the great recession from making social injustice worse, Ireland is 26th of 28.

The troika bears much of the blame: social justice was simply not on its agenda. Yet Portugal was also in a troika programme and its level of social justice is the same in 2016 as it was in 2008. Bad decisions were also made in Ireland: five regressive budgets in a row, for example. The “hard choices” that ministers loved to boast of were much harder on those on the receiving end. And it was perfectly possible to have made other choices.

Readers may remember the repeated insistence, especially by Michael Noonan, that Ireland must be thought of as a “northern European country” – not, in other words, like those chaotic southerners. But social injustice is a form of chaos that we’re very good at and our record is distinctly Mediterranean. If we really must trade in stereotypes of fecklessness, Ireland is, on this measure, somewhere around Sicily – half way between Spain and Greece in the feckless tolerance for poverty, for the exclusion of large numbers of children from the opportunity to grow as equal citizens, for the sustaining of intergenerational injustice.

Plague of ‘bestism’

At the moment we seem to be afflicted with a plague of what we might call “bestism” – the blithe proclamation that we are going to be the best in Europe, if not the world, at whatever you’re having yourself. But when it comes to social justice, we are consistently in the range of mediocre to rank bad. The Bertelsmann index uses six different dimensions of social justice to measure EU countries: poverty prevention, health, labour market access, social cohesion, intergenerational justice and equitable education. On how many of these is Ireland even in the EU top 10? Not one. On three of them, Ireland is in the bottom third: 20th of 28 on both education equity and intergenerational justice, for example. If the social justice index were the Premier League table, we’d be Hull City. We rank 18th overall, between Slovakia and Croatia.

And this is a choice. We choose to tell ourselves, not least in this centenary year, that we are republicans, egalitarians, members of an intimate society in which we look after our own. And maybe we even believe it. Perhaps, indeed, the problem is that we believe it so strongly that we have absolutely no need to act on it. It is a truth impermeable to statistical evidence such as a near-doubling of consistent child poverty or to shockingly tangible realities like 2,000 children waking up every morning in temporary accommodation, sharing a single hotel room with their parents.

One thing we do seem to be among the best in the world at is sustaining comfortable illusions about our collective values.