State must act on inequality by providing social housing
State intervention required as market will not provide solution to housing crisis
“This crisis will be resolved only when the State once again assumes responsibility for social housing provision. That is not a job for the market.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Europe is home to some of the most equal societies in the world, the OECD recently informed us. That’s the good news.
But that happy statistic hides an ugly reality for Ireland: ours remains one of the most unequal societies in the European Union, sitting uncomfortably in 15th position behind first-placed Denmark, from the EU states covered by the report.
Our proximity in the socioeconomic equality rankings to countries such as the UK, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Latvia and Estonia is likely to be a source of unease for many, jarring with the public image of an Ireland at the thrusting heart of a brave new Europe.
Back of the class is never a nice place to be. But can we be too surprised, after almost 10 years of stagnant living standards, austerity and a devotion to the “free market” among policymakers that verges on the religious?
Among the 14 countries that sit atop Ireland in the rankings, the clear majority have long since recognised one simple truth of modern economics: the free market may be proficient at creating wealth, but it is utterly incapable of wealth redistribution.
In fact, this is the root cause of societal inequality.
Throughout modern history, trade unions have proved the single most effective vehicle for such redistribution, through wage rises.
It is no accident that many of the countries which rank ahead of Ireland on equality also boast some of the highest unionisation rates in the EU and have evolved sophisticated systems of social protection and social dialogue.
They combine high standards of living with strong levels of equality and some of the most competitive economies across the globe. And they have no hesitation in shackling the market to society’s needs, when required.
If that approach was adopted here, there would be no housing crisis.
Has there been a more socially damaging policy failure in the history of this State, or a greater stain on the collective social fabric?
The damage that has and continues to be done to the tens of thousands of families caught up in this crisis must not be underestimated and demands urgent action.
What now for the life chances and educational prospects of those 2,560 children forced to shuttle back and forth between hostels and hotel rooms? They will never get these lost years back.
Or the thousands of young workers who cannot afford to either rent or buy a house? They pay exorbitant rents for insecure accommodation and have little hope of ever owning a home.
Working people across Ireland will have noted how our devotion to the market appears selective, at best, remembering how all concerns of “market interference” were rudely brushed aside in 2009 to save top bankers from the consequences of their actions.
They watch now as the housing crisis envelops their lives and communities and wonder at the sight of a government reduced to the status of a spectator on the sidelines.
This crisis will be resolved only when the State once again assumes responsibility for social housing provision. That is not a job for the market.
Similar lessons are slowly being learned at an EU level, although at a far slower pace than would be hoped. The EU was established to deliver prosperity and social progress. Over the last decade it has delivered neither, most especially for working people.
Instead key institutions spent much of that decade in a determined effort to drive down living standards, convinced that good jobs, quality services and the hope of a decent life were the true cause of the 2009 crisis.
As a result, millions of working people lost faith in the European project. This is the malaise we see manifested in Brexit and the retreat into far-right politics.
Only a determined effort to rebuild the promise and reality of social Europe can hope to restore that faith.
The European Pillar of Social Rights is a step in that direction but the promise it holds out must be fulfilled if the EU is to exit the Last Chance Saloon of which it has become an habitué.
Strangely, Brexit could present an opportunity to rebuild faith in a social Europe.
As the largest civil society body on the island, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions believes we must ensure that the process does not become a pretext to dismantle employment rights or drive down standards, a demand that is supported by the European Trade Union Confederation.
Brexit poses the single greatest threat to the economies on this island and to the future prospects of all who live and work here.
We have no room for error.
Patricia King is general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, whose biennial delegate conference opens in Belfast tomorrow