Rich should pay our way through this crisis


The priorities set out by the first Dáil in 1919 are mocked by our plans to handle the recession, writes Vincent Browne 

LATER THIS month there will be a commemoration in the Mansion House to mark the meeting of the first Dáil on January 21st, 1919. The commemoration might prompt an evaluation of priorities which would have special relevance to the decisions on how to deal with the economic crisis. At that first meeting of the first Dáil in 1919, the assembled TDs approved a Democratic Programme. Its edited relevant bits are as follows:

"We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, [and] we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.

"We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all.

"We, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation's labour.

"It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.

"The Irish Republic [shall provide] a sympathetic native scheme for the care of the Nation's aged and infirm, who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the Nation's gratitude and consideration. Likewise it shall be the duty of the Republic to take such measures as will safeguard the health of the people and ensure the physical as well as the moral well-being of the Nation.

"It shall be the duty of the Republic to adopt all measures necessary for the recreation and invigoration of our Industries, and to ensure their being developed on the most beneficial and progressive co-operative and industrial lines."

Before going further, let me make a few concessions. It is unlikely that these sentiments would have reflected the considered views of all of the TDs present, aside from the many TDs who were not present that day. But even if this was the determined view of everyone elected in that historic 1918 general election, that would not in itself be a trump card in determining how we might now, 90 years later, determine our own affairs. The argument that we are stuck with, for instance, the intentions of the framers of the 1937 Constitution seems to me ridiculous but yet, for some, it is the basis for determining constitutional issues.

But what at least some of the founders of the State thought was the purpose of the State should have at least some persuasive value. For if the founders of the State thought it appropriate to approve - however perfunctory - a statement on the objectives of the Republic they were founding, that surely demands of us an evaluation of what they thought they were about and what they hoped we would be about. Also, maybe in the same circumstances, we ourselves might approve of something similar.

If we were all starting out to found a Republic and we were all to disregard our own sectional or personal interests, might we not all agree that we, collectively, should have control of our destiny through the ownership of resources? Might we not also affirm our commitment to liberty, equality and justice for all?

Might we not give a commitment that every citizen would have an adequate share of the produce of the nation? That the government of the Republic would be required to provide for the care of children and to ensure that no child would suffer cold, lack of food, clothing or shelter? That the Republic would look after the aged and infirm? That we might strive to organise our businesses along co-operative lines? All that even at times of economic crisis? Especially at times of economic crisis?

In his interview on Sunday on RTÉ radio, Brian Cowen acknowledged that the deficit in the public finances might be as large as €20 billion this year.

He spoke about the unavoidability of public expenditure cuts and, only when pressed, did he reluctantly acknowledge there might be some tax increases.

The certainty is that if the crisis is addressed in the main through public expenditure cuts, then we can forget about any commitment to liberty, equality and justice for all.

The deep inequality that pertains will be deepened.

Caring for children and for ensuring no child will suffer cold, lack of food, clothing or shelter will be even more mocked.

Ditto regarding looking after the aged and infirm. And as for any democracy in business, forget it. Not on any agenda.

The only fair way of addressing the crisis is to insist that the rich or relatively rich pay for it, and that those not rich or relatively rich are protected through improved social welfare, health and education.

And by rich I mean anybody earning above twice the average industrial wage, which is around €40,000. So all of us earning over €80,000 must pay, we alone must pay. Pay through the tax system.

Were that to happen, some of those founders of the State might think what they did was worthwhile.