An Equal and Just Society? Towards Recovery: The Programme for a National Government (2011-2016)

The Citizen: Issue 4
September 2011

Author: Mary McAuliffe

The 2011 coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour was formed at a time of national crisis: an economy in freefall, a workforce under siege, fourteen per cent unemployment, emigration rising, families and communities under extreme pressure, and society showing signs of stress and fracture. Its programme for government, Towards Recovery: The Programme for a National Government (2011-2016), promised it was committed to tackling the economic crisis in a way that was fair and balanced and that would protect the most vulnerable in society. It requires that all public bodies take due note of equality and human rights in carrying out their functions – this would seem to mean reducing inequalities in areas such as education, healthcare (no more two-tier provision?), housing, and social services. The pressure to deliver a just and equal society seems to have become a bit too much for some in the Dáil. Closing in on the first one hundred days of this new government, backbench TD Michelle Mulherin (Fine Gael) proposed the introduction of compulsory army service for young people, especially the young unemployed who have the temerity to believe that they should have a ‘lifestyle’ comparable to working people. Of course, young people lucky enough to have secured a place at university or to have a job would be exempt from this army service. Other backbench Fine Gael TDs supposedly want to cap the amount that any family or household receives in social welfare ‘entitlements.’

Meanwhile, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton TD (Labour) worries about social welfare cheats. On her website, she declares that ‘one of the key priorities for my Department will be a concerted and active policing of the hidden economy sector where there is a prevalence of social welfare fraud and abuse.’1 Richard Bruton TD (Fine Gael), Minister for Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation, is very concerned about the rates of pay for the low-waged worker, especially those in the hospitality and retail sectors. In particular, he wants the cutting of rates set by the joint labour committees (JLCs), which would seriously reduce wages to the lowest-paid workers in these sectors. In the meantime, Brendan Howlin TD (Labour), Minster for Public Expenditure and Reform, cannot rule out more public sector job losses and pay cuts, despite the savings already achieved under the Croke Park deal; and Minster for Finance Michael Noonan TD (Fine Gael) warns of more tax hikes in the next budget. Most importantly, the new government continues to promise that Ireland will pay back all its crippling IMF-EU-ECB loans once the financial crisis is over.

Tax hikes; pay cuts for private and public sector workers; demands for lower rates of social welfare; increased surveillance of targeted industries for social welfare and tax fraud; and compulsory army service – in its first one hundred days, this new government has targeted the low-waged, the unemployed, the vulnerable services industries workers, and the already under-pressure public sector workers. This comes on top of continuing cuts to all levels of education, including special needs assistants and community education projects; cuts to many heath initiatives; and much more – so much so that it is a government of ‘slash and burn’ in almost every sector. Well, slash and burn in every sector except one: the banks got their money, and the junior and senior bondholders were not so much as allowed near a small candle, never mind burned in any way. No corrupt or incompetent banker, no venal developer, no ‘brown-envelope’ politician has yet to see the inside of a courtroom – except in the US, where ex-Anglo Irish Bank CEO David Drumm is at least spending time in one!

Correct me if I am wrong, but I was under the impression that it was the well-heeled, much-moneyed bankers, developers, and, yes, some politicians who were the main players in the downturn in our economy. Why, then, do those who benefited least have to pay most? Why do class and gender seem to be real factors in deciding who will bear the most pain in turning round this broken economy?

This coalition was elected with a huge majority on the back of promises of equality, justice, and fairness for all. In its Programme for Government, it was stated that ‘equality is at the heart of what it means to be a citizen in our democracy … and we all benefit from living in a more equal society.’2 We know this to be true. Research has shown that societies that have real levels of equality – socially, economically, and politically – are less stressed and under less pressure. Is their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009), Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that unequal societies where there are large gaps in income levels have high levels of mental health problems, alcoholism, and drug abuse; higher rates of obesity, teenage pregnancy, homicide, and suicide; lower levels of life expectancy; and educational attainment and literacy levels fall. Wilkinson and Pickett criticise societies for valuing economic growth above achieving real equality: inequality, not the fall in GDP, is the real cause of societal destruction. In most Western societies, the utopian ideal is of an egalitarian society, and it is generally accepted that the mental, physical, emotional, educational, and social well-being of any society are best served when there is a reduction in gender and class inequality and a closing of the income gap.

The Programme for Government (2011-2016) would, at first glance, seem to recognise this and pledges to ensure that the ‘rights of men and women to equality of treatment and to participate fully in society are upheld.’ By the end of their term in office, they promise, rather grandiosely it would seem, that ‘Ireland will be recognised as a modern, fair, socially inclusive, and equal society, supported by a productive and prosperous economy.’ On gender equality, steps will be taken to ensure forty per cent representation of women on all state boards; and the antediluvian Article 41.2, which firmly positions Irishwomen’s place within the home (‘In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’), is to be amended to reflect the new and changed society in which women and men live and work (inside and outside the home).3 The programme includes promises to maintain social welfare rates and reverse the cut in the minimum wage (now passed). The government states that the elimination of poverty remains its objective; in particular, it promises to tackle child poverty. Disadvantaged communities will be helped, and fuel poverty dealt with (recently, however, cuts in fuel allowances have been announced, which will inevitably increase fuel poverty). On health issues, the government promised to introduce a cervical cancer vaccination catch-up programme for all girls in secondary school and to extend BreastCheck to women aged sixty-five to sixty-nine years (currently, the scheme offers free mammograms to women aged fifty to sixty-four). They also promise to ban female genital mutilation. A most welcome inclusion is the promise to reform legislation on domestic violence and family law. All these promises are very welcome, and, should they be implemented, Ireland would be going some way to achieving that ‘fair, socially inclusive, and equal society.’

There is much missing from the programme, however. There is no specific commitment to deal with abortion in Ireland, most surprisingly in the wake of the recent judgement of the European Court of Human Rights: this court found that the ongoing failure to regulate access to abortion in Ireland had led to a violation of the state’s human rights obligations. Pro-choice activists have been justly critical of the parking of this issue yet again. We have had decades’ long campaigns, several referenda on the subject, reports by the dozen – and, all the while, thousands of Irish women have made the journey to the UK and further afield for terminations each year. However, the Fine Gael-Labour government feels the need for the establishment of yet another expert group to deal with the issue. This reflects the ongoing reluctance on the part of most Irish politicians to engage in any meaningful way on the issue of abortion. Under present Irish law, abortion is restricted in almost all circumstances, except where there is an immediate medical or psychological threat to the pregnant woman’s life. In practice, because there are no legal guidelines on how and when a termination may be performed within the Irish state, all women, even those who are seriously ill, have to travel to the UK. With the economic situation worsening in Ireland, will we see a return to a situation where women are travelling very late to get an abortion, where they are turning to backstreet ‘clinics,’ and where they are continuing with unwanted pregnancies despite their desire not to? Despite its reluctance and present financial constraints, it is time for an Irish government to deal with the issue of provision of abortion in Ireland.

The Programme for Government also includes a proposal on electoral reform to look at how to increase the number of women in politics (although the Constitutional Convention has, at this time, yet to consider constitutional reform), and there is also a commitment that public funding for political parties will be tied to the level of participation by women as candidates that those parties achieve. Phil Hogan (Fine Gael), Minister for the Environment, Community, and Local Government, has brought forward a bill that will see ‘parties have their state funding halved if they do not meet the new requirements to have at least thirty per cent women candidates at the next Dáil general election. This will rise to forty per cent after seven years.’4 However, the seemingly vexatious debate on gender quotas in the Oireachtas remains an issue. The 2009 Oireachtas Report Women’s Participation in Politics demonstrated that quotas work effectively and quickly to increase the number of women in national politics. It found that in the five European countries that passed gender quota legislation, a real change occurred.

In Spain, women’s representation in parliament has gone from twenty-eight per cent in 2000, before the passing of the quota law, to thirty-six per cent in 2008. In Belgium, women members of parliament have increased from twelve per cent in 1995 to thirty-seven per cent in 2007. In France, the application of the parity law to municipal elections increased women’s representation from twenty-six per cent in 1995 to forty-nine per cent in 2008.5

Despite the obvious successes in other countries, there is real resistance from many politicians, male and female, to the introduction of any legislation on quotas in Ireland. There is the argument that it would be an unfair system: that the culture of meritocracy in candidate selection that is perceived to now exist would be fatally undermined by the selection of unsuitable and, perhaps, incompetent candidates. What those who disagree with quotas constantly refuse to recognise is that this ‘culture of meritocracy’ is based on a pre-existing patriarchal political culture that has all too often privileged male candidates at local and national levels. Candidate selection by parties for general elections is often influenced by kinship ties and local networks (such as the GAA); and, of course, a strong, proven ‘vote-getter’ will always be seen as a ‘natural’ candidate. This is an obstacle for women, particularly since organisations such as the GAA and the golf club are often overtly masculine spaces. ‘Vote-getters’ are usually local politicians who have built up a profile in the constituency through their work on town or county councils and corporations. As only around fifteen per cent of local and county council seats are held by women, in most constituencies, the chances of a party having strong female vote-getters are slim. Political parties want candidates who will win seats, so they pick the local councillor, not necessarily on merit but on name recognition and popularity in the polls. Without statutory legislation to overcome this disadvantage at the candidate selection stage, women will continue to make few inroads into representation at national level.

Despite these limitations, there are promises that seem promising for the delivery of an equal society. However, what the Programme for Government also promises is that Ireland’s loans will be paid back and the infamous deficit will be reduced to three per cent by 2015. How the promises of a just and fair society and for the protection of the most vulnerable can be upheld in the face of savage austerity measures remains to be seen and may prove well nigh impossible. While there have been calls to put on the agenda the social consequences of the ongoing austerity measures and the effects on class and gender issues, it seems that balancing the national books, honouring the (bank) debts, and paying back the EU-IMF loan are more important than creating a more equal, just, and fair society for all the citizens of this country. Although Ireland is still a wealthy society, we are living in a country where income inequalities are growing, where class divisions are widening, and where gender issues are becoming problematic. Working women have been disproportionately hit by the lack of provision of affordable childcare, the reduction in tax credits, the continuing imposition of the draconian universal social charge, and the cuts in child benefit. Recent figures have shown that, while men account for a majority of the fourteen per cent unemployed, ‘male unemployment increased by 6,900 (+3.5 per cent) to 201,800 over the year [to end of first quarter of 2011], while female unemployment increased by 13,600 (+17 per cent) to 93,800.’6 This means that female unemployment is increasing at nearly three times the rate of male unemployment, showing that the job losses are now coming from traditionally female workplaces in the public sector (where women make up sixty per cent of the workforce) and in the hospitality, services, and care industries.

Women earn less than men on average, and the increase in taxes for all (including the low-waged) and cuts to community-run affordable childcare centres and child benefit, as well as the increase in female unemployment, continue a worrying trend in the feminisation of poverty. Cuts to health services, social services, health services, and community services that have affected women mean that the burden of caring, of childcare, eldercare, and healthcare, is once again falling on women, forcing many into double-jobbing (work and home) and others out of the workforce and into the home. There is also a more recent development that hints at the creation of an egregious ideology of the ‘undeserving’ poor. Again and again, we are hearing in the media about tax fraud, social welfare ‘spongers,’ especially young spongers, lone parent (almost always women) spongers, and foreign-national spongers, all intent on living the high life off the state. Perhaps these were the very people Michelle Mulherin had in mind for her army service. Perhaps these are the ‘undeserving’ families who should not receive too much in entitlements or benefits. There is a creeping use of language such as cheat, evasion, work-shy, waster, and welfare scammer when talking about unemployment. The Programme for Government rightly promises a ‘zero tolerance of welfare fraud,’ but talk of a mandatory ‘work-for-dole’ scheme seems more like punishment for being unemployed or using the unemployed to bridge the shortfall in government funding for local and community programmes.

This language of surveillance and the punishment of the unemployed and low-paid are about the containment and control of those on the margins of the post-Celtic Tiger society. The unemployed, the working poor, women, and emigrants – these are the people on whom the state is coming down hardest. These are the people it will make pay the highest price for the crimes of the wealthy and powerful. In its first one hundred days in office, the Fine Gael-Labour government brought a sense of purpose lacking in the last Fianna F�il-Green coalition. The visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama buoyed up the nation for a while. The energy and vigour that many ministers seemed to bring to their portfolios promised much. However, the austerity programme remains on track, with more cuts in public services, wages, social welfare, education programmes at all levels, health services, and local and community initiatives to come. Class divisions grow, and income inequality widens. Gender equality seems further away than it has been in a long time – the care burden on women increases, and the feminisation of poverty continues. The language of equality in the Programme for Government promises justice and fairness for all: the reality is something entirely different.

Mary McAuliffe is a lecturer in Women’s Studies, School of Social Justice, UCD, and President of the Women’s History Association of Ireland

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2011