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Column: '"A Right To A Home" should be put to referendum'

Constitutional change is required to underpin key economic and social rights if Ireland is to get to grips with the significant crisis, writes Mary Murphy.

Mary Murphy

IRELAND’S HEALTH AND housing systems are at breaking point. Men, women and children are left languishing for years on waiting lists wondering when they will get desperately needed medical procedures. Meanwhile, over 100,000 households are on housing waiting lists.

The figures make stark reading. A record total of 7,167 people are homeless. 7,890 patients lay on hospital trolleys last December.

The majority of the people suffering are on low incomes as well as those who are marginalised. If you have private health insurance you can access vital healthcare. If you can afford it you can provide a home for your family.

When access to vital services and housing becomes dependant on the ability of the individual to pay, society only goes one way. It becomes more unequal.

Vital services can be decimated in the interest of balance sheets. These result in crises such as those in Ireland’s health and housing sectors.

It is time to do things differently

Constitutional change is required to underpin key economic and social rights if Ireland is to get to grips with the significant crises across issues including health, housing and homelessness. The belief that constitutional change is vital in order to overcome these problems is not a lofty idealist approach.

States that have legally protected and enforced economic, social and cultural rights (ESC) show real improvements in practical access to housing and health. The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Initiative (ESCRI) is a coalition of over 60 civil society organisations that support strengthening the protection of these rights in the Irish Constitution.

The Irish people want these rights strengthened. An April 2015 Red C poll found that 96% of Irish people think laws protecting human rights are important in order to create a fairer more equal society, while 93% cared deeply about making Ireland a fairer place to live.

In 2014 the Constitutional Convention (made up of members of the public) recommended to government that “A Right To A Home” should be put to referendum. This has not happened. Nor have the government signalled any interest in doing so.

Public support is not enough

Political will is needed in order to bring about constitutional change. In short, nothing changes if nothing changes. Without a framework of constitutional rights to guide government – and hold them to account – the State will continue to respond to crises inadequately, failing to address underlying structural problems.

Successive governments took years to respond to massive rent increases which contributed to the current homelessness crisis. A “right to a home” would have provided clear instruction to legislators in the development of policy and legislation.

We do not need to look too far from home for evidence; Scottish responses to tackle homelessness have been better and more cost-effective because the political direction to tackle housing issues in Scotland is underpinned by housing rights.

See individuals not targets

Similarly, the State’s approach to health needs to change from one which sees individuals as a fraction of a target. People forget that a failure to meet targets corresponds to real human suffering.

We sanitise our language and forget that people’s lives are at stake. The right to timely and equal access to healthcare for all must be a constitutional right.

The current unacceptable reality of our health system is that the difference between life and death can often come down to your ability to pay. Similar to housing policy we have seen many inadequate policy responses, with some notable exceptions.

An April 2016 a survey of Irish GPs (commissioned by the Irish Cancer Society and carried out by the Irish College of General Practitioners) found “public patients can be left waiting up to 20 times longer than private patients for vital cancer tests,” with “some public patients left waiting up to 480 days for important tests”.

We’re lagging behind in terms of human rights

Bunreacht Na hÉireann was quite progressive, but we have since lagged behind in our understanding of human rights. Ireland has not incorporated United Nations guidance to promote human rights in our constitution.

Concerns about State finances have been raised, but UN guidance is clear. Economic and social rights are to be progressively realised and are subject to the State’s maximum available resources.

It is time for us to now speak clearly as a people to the government of the day. We do not want to live in a society where equal access to vital healthcare often depends on your pay packet. Or in a society with a record number of 2,407 children homeless.

Dr Mary Murphy is a lecturer in Irish Politics and Society at NUI Maynooth. She is also a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Initiative is a coalition of over 60 civil society organisations that support strengthening the protection of these rights in the Irish constitution. The group is hosting a high-level conference entitled “Making Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Meaningful” on Wednesday 29th March. 

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Mary Murphy

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