Opinion: "we should be engaged in a much bigger discussion about the economic, social and political security of our country"

By Shana Cohen, University of Cambridge

Looking at the news, much of Irish political debate has been focusing essentially on a narrow set of topics: Brexit and the backstop, the housing crisis, mismanagement and gaps in the health system and, increasingly, the possibility of unification after Brexit. While each of these issues is critical, we are in fact completely overlooking a much bigger, and much more fundamental discussion about the economic, social and political security of our country.

Ireland is a small country that depends on foreign investment but in this turbulent era, the failure to address profound social problems may mean the country is less prepared for external shocks - like Brexit -  than it should be.

The far right, which to date has not consolidated or emerged as a potent political force in Ireland, relies on insecurity in identity and income to build political support. Any alternative to this far right rallying call must concentrate on reducing the sense of insecurity and disaffection that fuels it. This can happen, in part, by ensuring greater access to public services and better wages. Beyond this access though, a greater sense of security requires public confidence that the state is intent on protecting individual rights and life opportunities.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, TASC's Robert Sweeney discusses the finding of his report The State We Are In: Inequality in Ireland Today

TASC and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies have produced a number of reports over the past several years that have consistently found worrying and growing anxiety across different income groups in Ireland. The anxiety is based on people lacking access to public services (especially in health, childcare, and education) and to distrust that the government will do anything to remedy this lack.

To give an example, we published a report last year on health inequalities in the EU. In Ireland, the media focused on the report’s indication that a "twilight zone" exists here, highlighting the concerns of a population that earns too much to qualify for a medical card, but not enough to be able to afford private health insurance and the fee for GP visits.

Another ongoing project is comparing the attitudes of the top 10% income group in Ireland, the UK, Spain, and Sweden. Emerging evidence from this project has shown that, despite earning more, this income group in Ireland expresses the most insecurity of the four countries about its financial position, particularly because of housing costs.  One woman we interviewed for the report earns €100,000 a year and considers herself "privileged", but still stated that "at the end of the third week of every month, I have nothing left." She said, "While people might look and say, wow, you are on a great salary and yes, I am on a great salary but I am exactly the same as everyone else – I have nothing left at the end of the third week of the month." 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Philip Boucher-Hayes and Della Kilroy report on precarious employment in Ireland

Working conditions can exacerbate precariousness and the sense of powerlessness. In 2017-2018, we pubished two reports on precarious work in Ireland. The reports were based on interviews and focus groups with primarily third-level educated young men and women who were on temporary or "if and when" contracts. These people spoke of making choices between medicine and food. A young woman, mirroring the perceptions of many, talked about the effects of insecurity on her mental health: "I had terrible mental health issues, like awful, really, really bad! And it was all work related. Like, very, very bad anxiety. You can’t plan in advance; you can’t plan your life; and the worst feeling is knowing that your whole life is in someone’s hands or someone’s control."

Remarkably, interviewees across these reports regardless of income and occupation have expressed no desire for more cash, but rather better public services and the security they represent, in that, they mean that families can spend less on basic needs like health or childcare. The top 10% interviewees have not complained about their own taxes; they have wanted greater taxes on the very wealthy and in some instances, corporations, to fund services that ensure households can avoid debt or even save, and likewise, have the freedom to seek opportunities. 

What these reports indicate is that although divisiveness is prevalent now in political discourse at a global level, there definitely seems to be more appetite in Ireland amongst people for the State to address inequality so that social and other differences do not grow. This public desire for public services, common values and greater equality must be listened to.

The most effective preparation Ireland can engage in is to invest in services and encourage platforms for promoting common values, like unions and civil society

The experience of other countries, where racism has become more acceptable and fears of declining national identity are openly expressed, serves as a warning of what happens when the perception of common values, opportunities, obligations, and challenges is lost. If Brexit happens, and there are other dramatic "shocks" such as unification, then the most effective preparation Ireland can engage in is to invest in the services and encourage platforms for promoting common values, like participation in unions and civil society.

READ: How Ireland's spending on welfare compares to the rest of Europe

If the Irish government does not go beyond equating Brexit preparation with budget management, they may find themselves facing the same political alienation, division and instability other countries, like our nearest neighbour, are experiencing now.

Dr Shana Cohen is Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher at the University of Cambridge and director of TASC, the independent think-tank for action on social change

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ