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Opinion As we move to a fairer and greener future we cannot forget those on the margins

Sorley McCaughey looks at how Ireland is doing when it comes to the agreed global Sustainable Development Goals.

IRELAND PRESENTED A review of its progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the UN on 19 July. In September, the SDG Summit will be held in New York, marking the beginning of a new phase of accelerated progress by member nations. This is the first of a series of articles, to be published between now and September, which voice the lived experience of those being left ‘furthest behind’ in Ireland’s progress toward the SDGs.

In March, I was commissioned by Coalition 2030, a gathering of civil society groups, trade unions and academics, to write a report on Ireland’s progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all UN Member States to end poverty, protect the planet and improve everyone’s lives and prospects. What was immediately apparent was that while the State plays a leadership role in the SDGs internationally, commitment to the Goals in Ireland is more patchy.

In particular, the State is failing to reach the most marginalised in Irish society, or to use the language of the SDGs, the ‘Furthest Behind’. There is no strict definition of the Furthest Behind, but essentially it means those at the margins of society – one-parent families, migrants, the working poor, people in Direct Provision, disabled people, to name just a few.

These were some of the people I spoke to as part of my research:

John is from Limerick. He’s a charming, articulate young man. He also has a brain disorder that prevents him from working full-time. He wants to work part-time but can’t find anything.

Like a lot of people with a disability, he survives on disability allowance and any other allowance he’s entitled to. But in his own words, that runs out quickly. Disability comes with its own particular costs, and John will be left behind unless the government introduces targeted measures of support, such as an ongoing cost-of-living disability payment in Budget 2024, a measure which could help John to do more than just survive.

I also heard heartbreaking accounts from young people living in Direct Provision (DP). One talked about living in an open prison, having no control, powerless. Another feared for his future, looking to a fellow DP resident who’d been there for 12 years – their entire life. Another talked about giving up hope.

Sustainable Development Goals are grounded in human rights and won’t be achieved in Ireland without doing away with the inhumane DP system – widely criticised for infringing on a range of human rights.

Of course, the housing crisis came up repeatedly. Adam in Cork, in full-time employment, is dependent on emergency accommodation because he can’t afford to rent. The daily rejections from landlords. The frustration. It’s no way to live, he told me. Leslie is a community worker in Dublin, living in social housing. Every week she struggles to pay the rent. Rising energy costs keep her awake at night, terrified at the prospect of what else she can cut from her weekly budget. It’s an appalling situation, that gnaws away at her mental health. Like Adam, she says she’s pushed to her limits.

There are thousands of Adams and Leslies being left behind across Ireland because of the housing crisis. To help them, we urgently need more social and affordable housing. But we also need social welfare payments to be pegged to a level that will actually lift people out of poverty.

Marie lives in Longford with her young child. She survives on a one-parent family payment, and while she knows the coal she burns aggravates her asthma and is bad for the climate, she can’t afford to change to a healthier fuel. Marie wants to do the right thing for the climate and her family but without government support to do that she and her child will be left further behind.

Marie’s situation is typical of one-parent families – a group that experiences the highest levels of deprivation in the State. Groups representing one-parent families are calling for social welfare payments to be benchmarked against the average industrial wage to give Marie and others like her some chance of moving forward.

But what Marie’s experience had in common with everyone I spoke to, was a sense of deep frustration at the injustice of the almost insurmountable obstacles they all face to simply survive, never mind to flourish. Leslie captured this poignantly when she told me that it wasn’t her fault she wasn’t born into better circumstances, to provide better for her children. Same for John – it wasn’t his fault he was born with a disability. Nor Adam’s for being a young adult during the worst housing crisis in the history of the State. As long as the State continues to fail these people, they remain stuck, dependent on whatever meagre supports they are entitled to.

Bring everyone along

The SDGs can’t be achieved if the State does not reach these people. However, when Ireland presented its progress report to the UN in New York this month, it insisted we’re doing well overall. For example, it insisted that progress towards achieving zero poverty in Ireland is pretty much achieved.

But that’s only true if you use the UN measure of absolute poverty – living on less than $1.25 a day. Obviously, that’s inappropriate for countries like Ireland. Instead, the State needs to develop country-specific targets and measures for all the Goals, including poverty, that would give a more accurate picture of Irish progress.

The SDGs in Ireland clearly suffer from a lack of political leadership. Being led from the Department of the Environment doesn’t help. Shifting responsibility to the Taoiseach’s Department would at least send a strong political signal.

Another signal of real leadership would be to embed the SDGs into all budgetary and policy-making processes across the State. Currently, they are too much of an afterthought, a nice to have rather than something to drive Irish policy.

None of this would require that much of a stretch for the government. Fulfilling the Goals is really just a case of doing what the State should already be doing – addressing the needs of the furthest behind in our society. But too often the State’s approach to the furthest behind are policies that don’t get implemented (e.g. Climate Action Plan), aren’t sufficiently ambitious (e.g. housing targets) or are once-off measures (e.g. energy credits).

Crucially, decisions are not being made based on human rights – nor on the Sustainable Development Goals. That has to change. The Goals are only as good as the data, resources and leadership that each country puts into them – quality data, resources and leadership. Despite our advocacy at an international level, at the moment Ireland is not putting in a lot and therefore isn’t getting much from them.

But with a step change in political leadership, and hardwiring the Goals into decision-making processes, the SDGs could become the framework around which Ireland reinvents itself as a true SDG champion for all its citizens – especially those furthest behind. Furthest Behind First, or Falling Behind Further? The human stories that challenge Ireland’s claims to be leaving no one behind can be found here.

Sorley McCaughey is an independent freelance public affairs, advocacy and communications strategist. He was Head of Policy at Christian Aid Ireland for 12 years, before which he worked for the UN on governance and anti-corruption programmes in different parts of Africa.


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