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Column: The Hunger Games of Ireland's Budget leaks

The villain of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series knows the value of ‘divide and conquer’ when keeping an unruly populace in check. Ireland’s yearly Budget “leaks”, which provoke panic across society, follow the same rule, writes Emer Delaney.

Emer Delaney

THE VILLAIN OF Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series knows a thing or two about keeping an unruly populace in check. President Snow governs the land of Panem, which is divided into twelve districts that suffer varying conditions of poverty – as well as the small, privileged Capitol, where Snow and his cronies live in plenty.

Every year, the districts are pitted against each other: twenty-four “tributes”, all under eighteen, must murder each other in a treacherous arena until only one is left standing. How can the districts unite against an oppressive ruler when their children are forced to turn swords and tridents and tracker-jackers on each other on an annual basis?

Divide and conquer

Snow’s particular application of “divide and conquer” may be the stuff of dystopian fantasy, but the principle behind it is a staple of our own legislators. Every year, in the run-up to the Irish Budget, the Oireachtas goes to sea in a sieve, it does. In other words, it spouts leaks wildly in all directions and pushes various threatened groups – carers, disabled people, pensioners, lone parents, migrants – into defensive islands. How can these groups unite to defend a shared principle of economic decency when each must muster already scant resources to protect its own people?

Recently, in a classic exposition of the “divide and conquer” tactic, a proposed cut to the old-age pension – a cut of €10 per week, without means-testing – was leaked by “senior coalition sources”. A whole swathe of other cuts was also mooted: cuts to child benefit, rent allowance, “non-core” health services, special needs assistants, third level funding… the list goes on.

Targeted groups have the smallest voices

Not coincidentally, none of the groups menaced by these proposals is in an ideal position to do much protesting, on their own or anyone else’s behalf. Many recipients of the old age pension face health and mobility problems that make rallies and marches unfeasible. Those parents who most need child benefit and special needs assistants, like many of those who avail of “non-core” health services, are engaged in exhausting, full-time caring that leaves little time for waving placards at the Dáil.

Students will protest, and will do it with vim – but those that do will generally have already gained access to third-level education and political knowledge. The young people for whom poverty bars the college gates will not have a loud voice in the protesting community.

In spite of all this, I don’t doubt that there will be letters, articles, rallies and marches against most of the leaked proposals. Community groups whose own funding has been slashed to half nothing have demonstrated huge resilience and energy in recent years, and will do so again. The problem, though, is that the government gets leaky in expectation of that very thing. It pits vulnerable groups against each other with a view to plucking out the one whose cries seem loudest and granting that group a much-publicised reprieve.

President Snow parades the victor of the Hunger Games through Panem, fostering both suitably faint hope and suitably strong inter-district resentment; similarly, our government parades its instances of mercy. “Look! We didn’t remove the medical card from the over-70s after all! (But we did slice the social welfare payment and raise university fees to a level that excludes poorer students).” “Hey! We reversed the latest cuts to special needs supports! (But the cuts to the respite care grant and the mobility allowance are going right ahead).”

Let’s demand systemic reform

We have been split into frightened, self-preserving ‘districts’ for long enough. We need to stop focusing on achieving random, piecemeal reprieves, and to start demanding systemic reform. With this in mind, the Equality Budgeting Campaign is calling for a new approach to the process of crafting the Budget.

First of all, budgetary decisions need to be made transparent. That means no more panic-inducing leaks, but the advance publication of a full draft Budget, and a public debate about its merits or lack thereof.

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Secondly, we need some way of understanding how proposed measures will affect criss-crossing sections of society. People can sometimes be trapped at the intersections of several changes (if maternity benefit, facilities for disabled children and benefits for lone parents are all cut by seemingly small amounts, for instance, how will the circumstances of a pregnant lone mother of a disabled child be altered?).

Equally, measures can interact with each other in particularly unhelpful ways. (For instance, the recent decision to stop the one-parent family payment after the youngest child has reached seven – ostensibly to encourage lone parents into the workforce – was teamed with cuts to community training schemes which effectively cut those same parents off from the possibility of developing their work-related skills). An equality audit of the draft Budget could resolve many of these problems, by analysing the potential impact of each suggested measure across gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic background, disability, marital status, and so forth.

Transparency and equality auditing

Equality Budgeting, then, demands two things: transparency and equality auditing. It is an entirely workable system – it already works in Scotland and, in various forms, has been or is being implemented in over 60 countries.

In The Hunger Games, the first chink in President Snow’s system of oppression occurs when District 11 sends a gift of bread to Katniss Everdeen, a tribute not their own. As the next Irish ‘Hunger Games’ draw near, we as a nation must do our utmost to resist the ‘district’ system, to insist instead on economic justice for everyone in our country, and to shift the odds that little bit more in all our favour.

Emer Delaney is a postgraduate researcher in Trinity College Dublin, where she studies the women’s suffrage movement in Italy. She has recently become one of the coordinators of the Irish Feminist Network, and is an activist with the Equality Budgeting Campaign. Visit the Equality Budgeting Campaign’s website or Facebook page for more information.

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Emer Delaney

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