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Column: Ireland should implement 'equality budgeting' to protect society's most vulnerable

While Minister Joan Burton’s criticism of EU-policy is laudable, much can be done domestically to stem inequality and poverty in Ireland, writes Clara Fischer.

Clara Fischer

LAST WEEK, the Guardian published an article by five high-profile politicians, which outlined the inadequacy of current EU policies in redressing the recession and its impact on citizens. The authors suggested a number of alternatives to the dominant focus on austerity, and rightly lamented the growing “chasm dividing prosperous core countries from a periphery destined for depression”, and the “increasing polarisation within countries”.

One of the contributors to this laudable critique of hegemonic policy discourse was our Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton. While Minister Burton’s intervention is to be welcomed, particularly her highlighting of the human costs involved in pursuing obviously flawed policies that lead to the disadvantaging of certain people, if not certain societies, it comes somewhat as a surprise.

A shake-up?

Given her standing as a minister, who has implemented severely harsh policies in the name of austerity, and who is a member of a party that clearly endorses the rationale of austerity as a means of managing the crisis, one has reason to be sceptical. And yet, perhaps Minister Burton’s rejection of Irish Labour Party policy indicates a new way of doing business. Is this “Labour’s Way”, which had been triumphantly pronounced by the Labour leadership while in opposition, and swiftly rejected in favour of “Frankfurt’s way” once in government?

Is Minister Burton planning a shake-up of a party that has seemingly reneged on its principles, and has suffered from defections and necessitated a members-based “Campaign for Labour Policies”?

Only time will tell what truly lies behind this breaking with the official Labour Party line. In the meantime, though, if Minister Burton is serious about mitigating some of the worst effects of her government’s policies, she should perhaps support reforms and the adoption of policy measures that other countries already incorporate as a matter of course in their decision-making processes concerning public expenditure and income.

Austerity is being inflicted disproportionately

As Burton and her colleagues rightly point out, citizens feel increasingly alienated from political institutions pursuing austerity. However, this alienation is further reinforced by the very obvious injustices committed by governments in the meeting out of austerity. Austerity is being inflicted disproportionately on certain sections of the population, while others remain relatively unencumbered. Hence, the polarisation within societies mentioned by the five authors is not just an outgrowth of austerity, but also an outgrowth of how cuts to services, welfare provision and income are being administered.

We know, for instance, that child poverty in Ireland has proliferated at accelerated levels since 2008, with every fifth child now being at risk of poverty, and every tenth child living in consistent poverty. Research has also shown that the poorest members of our society, lone parents, have been subject to disproportionate cuts to income and supports in successive budgets, thereby further driving lone parents into poverty. At the same time, the Sunday Times Rich List shows that the number of Irish billionaires has doubled since the beginning of the recession, and the top 10 per cent of earners in Ireland actually increased their wealth by 8 per cent since 2009.

Impact assessments and analyses

Importantly, all of these statistics are not just the by-product of an EU-wide imposed policy of austerity dictating “restructuring” of peripheral countries. Poverty, inequality, underfunded services, the undermining of welfare provisions, existing alongside increases in wealth for those at the top – these are also the results of decisions made by our elected representatives at national level.

Indeed, the very measures capable of shedding light on how to more fairly distribute the burden of austerity, and thereby counter inequality, are simply missing in the Irish context. Other jurisdictions, such as the UK, regularly conduct impact assessments and analyses to inform decisions concerning the public finances.

Not so in the Irish case. Budgets are devised in secret by four men (the self-styled “Economic Management Council” comprising the two Finance ministers and leader and deputy leader of the country), are completed with minimal consultation with the public and the legislature, and are devoid of analysis. By comparison, the Scottish budgetary process involves the publication of a draft budget (which can be debated before it is finalised), and an in-depth analysis of the equality impact of the budget. Research is done on the effects of budgetary measures on certain sections of Scottish society, and is presented alongside the budget on the Scottish government’s website.

The Irish government simply does not have enough information

Why should this be so difficult to implement in Ireland? If other jurisdictions are capable of assessing how certain policy measures will impact on different sections of society, to establish what the effects will be for children, women, older people, people with disabilities, and others, then why aren’t we capable of doing so?

The fact is, that the Irish government simply does not have enough information to ensure its policies won’t further entrench poverty and inequality in Ireland. As long as it refuses to implement a model of Equality Budgeting, along Scottish lines, it will continue to impose taxes and cuts on the most disadvantaged members of our society, thereby increasing “polarisation” and its effects for generations to come.

Ultimately, the people responsible for this are not just the much-vaunted EU officials and politicians, but the policymakers elected to represent the citizens of Ireland. I applaud Joan Burton for her principled stance on the EU’s narrow focus on austerity. However, there are vital, implementable reforms she can support at home to ensure the fall-out from austerity is mitigated.

Clara Fischer holds a Ph.D. in political theory and is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network. The network is part of broad-based coalition of civil society organisations and concerned individuals seeking more equality-focused policymaking, the Equality Budgeting Campaign.

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Clara Fischer

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