Ireland needs a dramatic change in direction – but does anybody really want it?

The myriad of problems Ireland is experiencing are well documented. There are hundreds of NGO’s, trade unions, community groups, political parties and individuals identifying those problems and calling for change, and yet the issues everybody is so critical of have only been exacerbated by successive governments. Why? Because politics in Ireland is broken and very few people appear to have an appetite to change that.

  • Ireland has the second highest prevalence of low pay in the entire OECD – only lagging behind the USA.
  • 2,121 children are homeless across the State with more than 70 families losing their homes every single month.
  • Irish class sizes are the second highest in the EU with 25 pupils per student compared to an average in the EU of 20.
  • More than 10 percent of people living in Ireland experience food poverty.
  • 4,300 people have been waiting on a potentially lifesaving colonoscopy for more than three months, while those with private health insurance will have tests done within 12 days.
  • 5,400 people die preventable deaths on the island of Ireland due to economic inequality.

These figures are a small sample of the crisis we have in our country for headline topics such as health, housing, employment, education, inequality and poverty. Behind every number in every statistic is a person – a family member, a work colleague, a neighbour or a friend – and yet for some reason, something is holding us back from making real change.

Despite knowing that thousands die in Ireland annually as a result of economic inequality, our last five Budgets by the previous Government were all regressive with the last two increasing the income inequality gap by €1,003 per year alone. And this excludes water charges which were arguably the most regressive austerity measure since the financial collapse of 2008, before thousands rose up and demanded the scrapping of the unfair charges – something that still hasn’t been delivered despite two thirds of those democratically elected to the Dail being returned on the back of their anti-water charges stance.

The impact of these budgetary decisions will take some time to filter through, but no doubt they will exacerbate statistics like our excess winter mortality rate – which is already the highest in Europe, including among the colder Scandinavian countries. This is where more people die during the winter months due to cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease than the other months, and 70 percent of those deaths occur in the poorest socio-economic groups.

Is this the type of country we want to live in? A country where people die because they don’t have sufficient incomes to heat their homes and dress themselves properly?

Imagine there was a campaign that tackled economic inequality and set about a different vision for Irish society. One where your access to healthcare is not dependent on your income. Where housing is a right and not provided solely on the basis that the building of those houses provides a profit for private construction companies. An Ireland that joins the rest of the developed world in saying workers have a right to be represented by a trade union of their choice – allowing them to address the issue of low pay and low hour contracts which lead to poverty and deprivation. Where natural resources are valued as a public good, not to be exploited by the wealthy few. Where climate change is genuinely tackled and not seen as an opportunity for the private sector to make quick buck. Or a campaign that sees education as an investment in future generations and democracy as something to be embraced, not exploited.

Prior to the 2016 General Election a number of trade unions including Mandate Trade Union, the CWU, Unite the Union and OPATSI launched the Right2Change campaign. It laid out a clear pathway for how to tackle some of the major crisis facing Ireland. It presented an alternative society based on equality, social justice and real democracy. The campaign presented a fiscal document that would allow for increased public spending of more than €10bn over four years to address the above crisis, but it also set out to address the non-financial inequalities that face so many of us.

The plan was simple. Engage trade unions, community groups, civil society groups, political parties and Independent representatives and ask them what type of policies they wanted implemented. We had two conferences to discuss policies and had a submission process leading to the Right2Change Policy Principles of Right2Water, Right2Health, Right2Housing, Right2Sustainable Environment and Right2Education, among other policy areas.

Next up, ask political parties and general election candidates whether they would support those policies and work together to implement them if enough were elected and could form a government. There is no doubt the campaign had an impact in the election but that impact has yet to be fully analysed. However, despite hosting a national demonstration the Saturday before the election which was attended by tens of thousands of people, very little media coverage was afforded to the campaign or its spokespeople. It seemed the media weren’t interested in discussing policy areas like housing, healthcare and water, but were instead focussed on Slab Murphy and his trial. Therein lies one of our key problems.

The genesis of the Right2Change campaign has been to educate and build a broad movement, but for it to be broad some sacrifice is needed. There isn’t one person involved in the campaign who thinks all of the policies are perfect. The democratic manner in how the policies were formulated means that compromise is necessary. But what remains is a campaign with policies that advocate a fundamental shift in direction from the neo-liberal free-market policies implemented by successive governments over the past 40 years that have resulted in Ireland becoming so unequal and unfair.

If we truly are to build a movement that can achieve positive change, we all have a responsibility to play our part because the opponents of change and the advocates of the status quo are organised and very powerful. The alternative is to continue to operate in isolation and advocate based on narrow self-interest which has led to the destruction of so many lives over the last number of years.

Politics is broken, of that there is little doubt, but if we don’t do anything about it, we are contributing to the disasters of the future. As the Institute for Public Health in Ireland said: “There are not natural disasters. There are natural phenomena that can become disasters depending on our set of social arrangements.” This is also true of social and political disasters.

A movement, by definition, means collectively we’re progressing in a specific direction. The next few weeks will determine whether we as a society and all of us as activists can take a step in the right direction.

By David Gibney, Mandate Trade Union and Right2Water/Right2Change coordinator and published in June 2016.

Over the coming weeks, a major conference will be called to establish whether there is capacity to formalise a movement which would pursue an more egalitarian country and tackling our crisis in health, housing, education and the other policies mentioned in the Right2Change platform. If you wish to stay up to date or become more involved by attending this conference, click here and fill in this form.