If one accepts the existence of the commons—
the common resources bequeathed to us as
society, natural or social in origin—then one
should accept that over the centuries—and
savagely during the austerity era—there has
been organised plunder of the commons by
privileged private interests at the cost of all of
us as commoners.
Patrick Allen, Basic Income as Common Dividends
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to
the ownership of Ireland, and . . . all its material
possessions . . . all the wealth and all the wealth-
producing processes within the Nation, and . . .
we reaffirm that all right to private property must
be subordinated to the public right and welfare.
Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.
The pandemic is showing us at our best and at our worst. It has made heroes of frontline workers, not only the medical staff, who richly deserve it, but also the previously invisible staff who deserve it too, the other frontliners without whom ‘normal’ service could not be provided and for whom working from home isn’t a possibility. Perhaps for the first time, we have been forced to see the people who clean and maintain our hospitals, who clean and maintain our schools and other public buildings, who clean our streets and collect our rubbish, and who can’t afford not to do our dirty work for us.
And it has made villains of the usual suspects: the greedy feckers who rented their private hospitals to the national health system at sickening rents during a national emergency and an international pandemic. And all the fat cats who sit on their piles and suck up money tax-free that could have been used to save lives if they had paid their taxes.
It has drawn a sharp divide between those who could lose their houses or their jobs or their lives because of the pandemic, and those who are calculating how to foreclose on mortgages that will become ‘distressed’ or how to use job losses to depress wages, or who talk out loud about the premium represented by the death rate among older citizens making houses available and reducing the cost of pensions.
This is a really long way from where we started. The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, the de facto manifesto of the War of Independence, declared the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and all its material possessions, and that is precisely the common wealth that has been systematically plundered by privileged private interests since independence. And plundered more savagely since the early 1980s, as successive Irish governments have embraced a neoliberal, so-called trickle-down economic theory and practice that produced an unprecedented widening of income and wealth inequalities.
In this new world order, public rights and welfare were made subordinate to property rights, citizens became taxpayers, and workers became human resources.
Globally, the previously unimaginable wealth of a horrifyingly small number of people is subverting democracy in favour of (or dreams of) oligarchy, in which wealth is the only good and profit is the only principle. In the neo-liberal economy, stock markets have soared, indicating how well the rich and ultra-rich are doing while, for the first time since the great depression in the 1930s, food banks have appeared in some of the richest countries in the world—including ourselves, the UK, and the US—because poor people can no longer afford to feed themselves. Humanity, integrity, and civil rights are all expensive indulgences when the bottom line becomes the headline.
That relentlessly increasing gap between rich and poor over several decades has had predictable consequences. The disadvantaged, the disaffected, and the disrespected at the bottom of the wealth pile have had enough; they’re as mad as hell and they ain’t gonna take it anymore. The resulting free-floating anger and the electoral chaos it engenders are echoed across Europe and the US, breeding ugly partisanship in the rise and rise internationally of angry populism with extremes to the left and, more markedly, to the right, with the horrifying spectre of fascism looming large.
The social unrest that accompanied the rise of angry populism elsewhere was pretty contained over here; we hit the ballot boxes before we hit the streets.
The last three elections have left no doubt about the anger and the issues driving it but no clear consensus as to how we should go about fixing them. Nevertheless, one cry recurs across the spectrum of protesting voices: a deep concern about the ‘expensive indulgences’ that have to be sacrificed to maintain a neoliberal economy—like healthcare, homes for the homeless, and clean air and water paid for through general taxation, just for starters.
Mind the gap
Study after study has shown that after more than 40 years of the neoliberal free-market, very little is trickling down. The chart below shows the declining share of the nation’s income going to the bottom 90 percent of us and the rapidly increasing share going to the top one percent since Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and the greed-is-good economic philosophers took control of our democracies.
But where is this increased share coming from? From increased productivity among the top one percent? Hardly. The chart on the left makes it clear that it’s coming from the rest of us. It comes from the steady shift upwards of labour’s share of corporate profit to the boardroom and the shareholders. And it comes from a Thatcherite move from direct to indirect taxation that disproportionately affects lower-income groups[i]. And it comes from the pauperisation of public services on account of the taxes the rich aren’t paying. Low tax economies benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
The second chart shows a reflection of that shift upwards of income in the gap between the rich and poor in Ireland when it comes to accumulated wealth. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2016, the poorest ten percent of people in Ireland owned less than none at all of the nation’s wealth—minus 0.1 percent to be exact—while the top 10 percent owned 58.5 percent—noticeably more than the other ninety percent of us could manage between us (41.5 percent).
The top one percent owned as much of the country’s total wealth as the bottom eighty percent. And David McWilliams points out that
In 2014, the 100 people on the Irish Rich List earned twice as much as the entire growth in Irish GDP. We are not talking here about the mythical 1 percent. If it were the 1 percent, we would be talking about a significant cohort of between 46,000 and 48,000 people. Here we are talking about 100 individuals. This is off the scales. (davidmcwilliams.ie).
All of this is off the scales. And we commoners have had enough.
If there’s one issue among many that grabs the attention of most Irish people it’s the horrifying state of permanent crisis in which almost 9,000 homeless adults and children currently survive. An awful situation is made worse by the knowledge that this is an ideologically driven crisis. Successive Governments have given up building public housing because they simply refuse to believe that ‘the market’ has not, is not, and will not do what they insist it can and will do—provide enough housing for everybody, at every income level. The real-life evidence shows that the market can not, has not, and/or will not provide public housing.
The mean average full-time income in Ireland is €47,596[ii] as I write; that would get you a mortgage of €166,586 at three and a half times income [iii]. The average cost of a three-bed semi in Dublin is €433,000, while outside of Dublin it would cost €236,000. About 64 percent of us earn less than the mean average income, which suggests that about two thirds of the Irish population can’t afford to buy an average house, even outside of Dublin, the big money pit.
The median income in Ireland (the exact mid-point on the national income scale), is €2,109.17 per month before tax (CSO). The current average monthly rent in South County Dublin is over €2200. This means that the entire gross income of exactly half the population of the country wouldn’t cover the cost of renting an average home in South County Dublin. That is segregation.
The Government has surrendered its responsibility for providing public housing to the private sector, with disastrous consequences. Seventy thousand households are on waiting lists for public housing; nine thousand of them have been ‘warehoused’ in severely inadequate ’emergency’ accommodation. Private rental prices have rocketed and, in the absence of Government action, more and more people are paying an insane portion of their total income on rent, while others are being squeezed into homelessness.
It’s crazy to continue voting for FF/FG expecting them to solve the homeless crisis that they caused for their own ideological purposes.
We’re becoming inured to the homeless statistics and to the images they generate in the media, social and otherwise. To be homeless is to be invisible. Nowadays, to grab our attention we need pictures of a five-year-old eating his dinner on the pavement, or an elderly woman eating hers on a windowsill. The images are awful; the statistics are awful. Even more awful is that we keep re-electing the two parties who have refused for decades to build public housing while watching the numbers of homeless soar.
One definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over expecting a different result each time. Let me put that another way: it’s nuts to expect the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duoligarchy to solve the homeless crisis that they caused for their own ideological purposes. The homeless, like the poor, will apparently always be with us unless and until we elect a Government that will get back into the business of building houses.
Again, the statistics on health are horrifying, the media images are gut-wrenching, and the facts are stark. On January 17, 2006—the year Mary Harney, then Minister for Health, declared the situation in the country’s A&E departments a national emergency—there were 422 patients on trolleys in Irish hospitals. Fourteen years of emergency status later, on January 7, 2020, there were 760 patients on trolleys in those same Irish hospitals (Frank McGrath, It’s a War Zone in HSE Emergency Departments).
In June 2016, ten years into the ’emergency’, the Dáil established the Committee on the Future of Healthcare. Its stated goals were to achieve cross-party political agreement on the future direction of the health service and to devise a ten-year plan for reform. In May 2017, the Committee presented the Sláintecare Report to the Government, who shelved it.
This is inaction as ideological strategy, supported by the handy-dandy use of delayed reports, or more consultation with experts, or shifting the blame to someone else’s alleged incompetence—the HSE, for instance—as rationales intended to make inaction sound like action. If all else fails, we have a system of pipelines open wide at one end for promises and closed to a pinprick at the other end when it comes to delivery. And they’ve been getting away with it for years.
Recently the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) have made common cause (sort of) with the commoners. Late last year, they called an emergency meeting to discuss the deteriorating conditions across the nation’s acute hospitals and the detrimental impact this is having on public patients. They pointed out that the number of people waiting for access to healthcare is now in excess of one million—from a total population in the Republic of 4.88 million—with increasing numbers of them waiting many months and years. On those and other grounds, they unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in then Minister for Health Simon Harris.
It’s hardly looney-left to say that it’s well past time for urgent action—starting with implementing Sláintecare and ending the atrocious, inefficient, unfair, and undemocratic two-tier system of access to healthcare in Ireland.
That was written before the pandemic made its presence felt to all-but overwhelm the health system. But the Sláintecare report remains on the shelf to which it has been consigned while we struggle through the kind of crisis it was designed to deal with—though on a previously unthinkable scale.
Who knew the final straw for the Irish commoners would be the introduction of water charges? That put feet on the ground. We had big marches in the centres of towns and cities with contested numbers of thousands of protesters, and small pickets in outlying housing estates, each with a dozen or so protesters calling shame on the installation of meters. And it worked, or so it seemed: water charges were dropped and those who had paid prematurely were given a refund.
The Government can charge us, through our taxes, for treating our water, but they can’t charge us for drinking it—we already own it.
That ‘victory’ kept us quiet for a while—but in reality, it was only a reprieve, a strategic withdrawal until the anger dissipated. In July 2019, we were threatened once again with charges for those who use ‘excessive’ quantities of water. This thin end of the wedge would leave it up to Irish Water to decide what is ‘excessive’ and who pays for it. But that’s precisely what the protestors protested about: we already pay through our general taxes for treating one of our most basic national commons and, by general consensus, that’s the way it should be.
The Government can charge us, through our taxes, for cleaning the air, but they can’t charge us for breathing it. And by the same token, they can charge us for treating our water, but they can’t charge us for drinking it—we already own it.
And if you want to know who is responsible for excessive quantities of water being wasted every day, the answer is Irish Water. The real problem is that they have failed to stop, and show no apparent appetite for stopping at any time in the near or distant future, the loss of more than 40 percent of water, treated at our expense, that leaks through the sieves currently passing for water pipes in Ireland. So that responsibility for the most excessive wastage has to be laid at the door of Irish Water and their predecessors. That uncomplicated fact makes it clear who should be paying the cost of repairing the nation’s water pipes. And it’s not the consumers.
We all know the answer. This isn’t a problem that would stump an average ten-year-old. I’m fully aware that repairing or replacing those pipes would be a big, messy, and expensive project but putting it off—and laying the cost of putting it off onto the commoners as yet more indirect taxation—is the opposite of a solution. It is, and will increasingly become, the source of the problem.
But the dance partners in the 32nd Dáil didn’t want to know about long-term planning; they preferred the sugar high of short-term victories that boosted poll numbers. And in spite of our best efforts, when the 2020 electoral dust settled, the poll dancers still had the stage.
To contextualise all of this, according to the International Monetary Fund, Ireland is the sixth richest country in the world. That’s richer than France (29th), the UK (30th), Canada (24th), Australia (22nd), Germany (18th), the USA (12th), Kuwait (9th), United Arab Emirates (8th), and Brunei (6th). Seriously. (Global Finance, gfmag.com/global-data). It’s hard to avoid the obvious conclusion: that we’re rich, or a few of us are, because we don’t waste money on expensive indulgences like caring about the one in ten of us who owns less than nothing, or creating a universal health service, or building homes for the homeless, or delivering clean water efficiently.
Nobody will be surprised to hear that ‘Ireland is one of the world’s largest corporate tax havens, which pushes us up the international rich list, but is of little benefit to the average income earner.
In Ireland, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is US $25,310 a year, lower than the OECD average of US $33,604 a year. But there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest—the top 20% of the population earn almost five times as much as the bottom 20%.
Income and wealth inequality, health, housing, and climate change are the traditional territory of the left. And from a left-perspective, the solutions are clear: use the tax system to narrow income and wealth differentials at least until the median and mean average incomes meet. Implement and properly finance Sláintecare or something like it and make all healthcare free for all of us.
Remember that water is precious, and may become more so in the future, so stop allowing it to drain away. And build houses—lots of them—rather than subcontracting the job to multi-millionaire developers fresh out of NAMA who want to become billionaires at the taxpayers’ expense.
The best time to start implementing these changes was about 40 years ago. The second-best time is now.
*This is an adaptation and update of an article originally published in leftbucket.com in April 2017.
[i] A bin charge of, say, €500 annually (about €10 per week) would be 5 per cent of €10,000 per year, 4.13 percent of €12,912 (basic state pension), but 0.5 percent of €100,000 per year. The lower your income, the higher your indirect tax rate.
[ii] The most recent full-year data relates to 2018 and it shows that average annual earnings increased by 3.3 percent to €38,871 that year. When part-time workers are stripped out, the figure for full-time employees was €47,596 per year. (irishtimes.com/news).
[iii] The Central Bank of Ireland sets an upper limit of LTI [loan to income] of 3.5 times gross income for most owner-occupier mortgages (centralbank.ie/publications). This limit doesn’t apply to those borrowing for a buy-to-let property—landlords are a protected category, apparently.
[iv] [Socialists] want to divide our society into . . . some people who pay for everything and qualify for nothing and other people who . . . er . . . um . . . (Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach, 32nd Dáil).
Equal access to a home
The only possible conclusion is that the current housing policy is designed to make sure that landlords, developers, and investment funds will get rich on our tax money. And then the laws of supply-and-demand in a free marketplace will house everyone at every level. To paraphrase Trump, ‘one day the homeless will just disappear, like a miracle.’
Welcome to Ballymun
The problem with ‘problem tenants’ is rarely the tenant but the lack of supports written into Ballymun’s history from the start when promised services failed to appear. And because vulnerable tenants are often politically disempowered, ‘the authorities did not feel pressure to maintain the blocks to a decent standard’ (O’Toole).
A very Irish coup
Albert Einstein said that we can’t solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them. Swinging endlessly between two parties from a socially conservative, right centrist, and redundant tradition of party politics in Ireland got us as far as the mess we’re in. But take Einstein’s word for it, it’s not going to get us out of it.