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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 19 December, 2014

Column: Austerity has exacerbated inequality across our society

The well-being of the most vulnerable in society has been completely disregarded in the European Central Bank policy of enforcing debt slavery on peripheral countries like Ireland, writes Rory Hearne.

Rory Hearne

THE CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin’s recent appeal for food for the large numbers of children and students going hungry in Dublin highlights the scale of suffering and human rights abuses that have resulted from the imposition of austerity. It is a good time to look at what austerity has done, who it has affected most, and what those who stand up against human rights violations are doing to stop it.

The burden of austerity has been on the lower-income and the most vulnerable groups in Irish society; there have been regressive taxes and cuts including a property tax and savage reductions in social welfare for the most vulnerable.

These include cuts for under-25 year olds, cuts to fuel allowances, child benefit, back to school clothing and footwear, home help hours for the elderly and sick, reduced disability allowance and carers’ allowance, reduced allowances for the elderly, cuts to lone parents’ support, increased health charges, and third level student fees rising from €500 to €3,000. The most at-risk group of poverty in Ireland, lone parents, lost the highest percentage of income in Budget 2011.

Cuts hitting our most disadvantaged communities

Two particular examples of the cuts hitting our most disadvantaged communities are the reduction in the regeneration plans for social housing estates and the cuts to the community development projects that work with disadvantaged communities. There has been a destruction of the social infrastructure of the Irish welfare state as the amount of public service workers delivering public services has been reduced by 37,500 over the period of austerity, from 320,000 to 282,500.

The level of social devastation is shown by the fact that over 1.5 million people have €50 or less left over at the end of the month after their essential bills have been paid; there are 100,000 households in need of social housing; the deprivation rate is 22.5 per cent (an increase of 5.5 per cent in one year); and there are 730,000 living in poverty with 1 in 5 children in poverty. On top of this you have the huge family and community affects of 90,000 emigrating in 2012, as well as 97,874 homes in mortgage arrears.

Austerity has clearly exacerbated inequality. The Central Statistics Office showed that the gap between the richest and poorest in Ireland increased by 25 per cent in 2010. The top 20 per cent of the population’s average income is five times the income of those on the lowest 20 per cent, and yet the top 10 per cent of households only pay an effective average tax rate of 25.6 per cent. Similarly many corporations are only playing an effective tax rate of 4 to 6 per cent.

Austerity is a political choice

But austerity was, and is, a political choice made by the government, state, and financial elite. There were, and remain, alternatives to austerity including getting a fair contribution of tax from those on higher incomes and multinational corporations, as well as using the billions in national cash reserves to implement a jobs creation programme.

The evidence of austerity in Ireland backs up the findings in Oxfam’s recent report, A Cautionary Tale; The True Cost of Austerity and Inequality in Europe. It stated that, “Europe’s handling of the economic crisis threatens to roll-back decades of social rights… and… if left unchecked, austerity policies could put between 15 and 25 million more Europeans at risk of poverty by 2025 – nearing the population of the Netherlands and Austria combined. This would bring the number of people at risk of poverty in Europe up to 146 million, over a quarter of the population.”

Austerity in Ireland has clearly breached a number of human rights treaties that the Irish government has signed up to. For example, the Council of Europe Revised European Social Charter (RESC) at Article 30 states that: “With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion, the Parties undertake… to take measures within the framework of an overall and co-ordinated approach to promote the effective access of persons who live or risk living in a situation of social exclusion or poverty, as well as their families, to, in particular, employment, housing, training, education, culture and social and medical assistance.” And Article E states: “The enjoyment of the rights set forth in this Charter shall be secured without discrimination”.

Yet there have been disproportionate cuts to supports for the most vulnerable in our society such as those with a disability, the elderly, and children.

The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights which applies to the EU’s institutions and member states when implementing EU laws has been completely disregarded in the European Central Bank policy of enforcing debt slavery on peripheral countries like Ireland, as it did not allow governments to ‘burn’ bondholders but insisted the state and its people pay for the losses of the private banks.

Furthermore, the bailout programme fundamentally breaches human rights in the way in which it has forced the cost of adjustment on to the Irish people rather than financial institutions. While the Irish and European banks and international bondholders were bailed-out to the staggering amount of €64bn, the Irish people have had eight austerity budgets since 2008 that have cumulatively involved over €30 billion in public spending cuts and tax increases.

Human rights infrastructure is in tatters

But none of these human rights treaties have stopped austerity. Furthermore, the government, state and political system, have been allowed to use the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the human rights infrastructure and organisations that critically highlighted inequality during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ such as the Combat Poverty Agency, the Equality Authority, and the Irish Human Rights Commission.

Austerity has thus left the human rights infrastructure in tatters and huge questions remain over its relevance. The social partnership, polite-lobbying, ‘defend your patch’ approach of many of the organisations tasked with defending human rights such as NGOs, charities and trade unions has resulted in civil society becoming part of the establishment, failing to resist austerity in any meaningful way and abandoning the principles of social justice and solidarity.

The most significant human rights opposition has come from grassroots movements and organisations including the anti-household charges campaign, local hospital action groups, Shell to Sea, the Ballyhea debt campaign, the We’re Not Leaving youth movement, and the Dolphin House Human Rights campaign. These use the methods and approaches of the civil rights movements and original human rights struggles which follow self-liberation and people power, empowering rights holders to take political action themselves.

Austerity is far from over as we face years of debt slavery and recession. It’s time for human rights to be observes – for, just like Martin Luther King Jr said:

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom… Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Dr Rory Hearne is a Lecturer in Geography NUIM, member of Claiming Our Future and former community worker.

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