We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to . . . all it’s material possessions . . . all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and . . . reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.
Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.
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 . . . 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
Mind the gap
The common wealth in the quotation from Patrick Allen above is precisely ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to . . . all its material possessions’ declared by the first Dáil—the de facto manifesto of the war of independence. But despite almost a century of republican independence, our common wealth continues to find its way into the hands and pockets of privileged private interests. That process has intensified since the early 1980s as successive Irish governments have embraced a neoliberal, greed-is-good, so-called trickle-down economic theory and practice. The cumulative result has been an unprecedented widening of income and wealth inequalities.
The chart on the right shows the declining share of the nation’s income going to the bottom 90% of us and the rapidly increasing share going to the top 1%. From the early nineties to the crash in 2008, the top 1% made significant gains. The bottom 90% made overall losses. That was the Celtic Tiger.
But where does that increased share rising to the top come from? From increased productivity among the top 1%? Hardly. The chart makes it clear that it comes from the rest of us—from the steady shift upwards of labour’s share of corporate profit to the boardroom and the shareholders; from a Thatcherite move from direct taxation to indirect ‘consumer pays’ taxes that disproportionately affect lower-income groupsi; and from the pauperisation of public services because the rich don’t pay their share of taxes.
That shift upwards of income is reflected in the increasing gap in accumulated wealth between the rich and poor, as the chart on the left shows.
According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2016, the poorest 10% of people in Ireland owned less than none at all of the nation’s wealth—minus 0.1% to be exact. The top 10% owned 58.5%—noticeably more than the other 90% of us could manage between us (41.5%) and more than twice as much as the bottom 80% combined (27.6%).
That same cohort, the bottom 80%, are in a statistical dead heat with the top 1%, who own more than a quarter of the entire wealth of the nation (27.3%).
Furthermore, 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 per cent. If it were the 1 per cent, 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).
And according to the Wealth Report 2019 from estate agent Knight Frank ‘almost 3,000 Irish people became millionaires last year—and one became a billionaire—on the back of rising asset and property values’ and not through any effort on their parts. And they’re going to get even richer: there are 77,984 millionaires in Ireland, with another 17,000 Irish people on course to join them by 2023. We currently have nine billionaires (Irish Times).
Meanwhile, also in 2019, Social Justice Ireland found that one in five children lives in a family with incomes below the poverty line, while one in four experiences at least two of the eleven deprivation indicators. Approximately 110,000 children experienced consistent poverty, both living in households with incomes below the poverty line and also experiencing persistent deprivation.
All of this, in McWilliams’ words, is off the scales. And we commoners have had enough. The last three elections made it clear that there’s a demand for change out there and equally clear that a fragmented left can’t deliver those changes. It’s time for the left to start thinking strategically across party lines.
Mind the Housing Gap
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. But familiarity is corrosive. We’re becoming so accustomed to the statistics and the images they generate in the media, social and otherwise, that to be homeless is increasingly to be invisible. Nowadays, to capture 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.
The truth is that neither of the two Grand Ole Parties who have governed for the entire history of the Republic, is interested in building houses because that would interfere with the market. If done efficiently and expeditiously, it would bring down the market cost of houses and apartments and the cost of private rentals. This would not please developers, builders, and landlords, who are accustomed to getting top prices—no matter what the cost to the economy.
And in this climate of greed, Governments, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have surrendered to the private sector the responsibility for providing public housing, with predictable consequences. Somewhere between seventy and a hundred thousand households (it depends on who’s counting) are on waiting lists for public housing. Nine thousand people without homes, one in three of them a child, have been ‘warehoused’ in severely inadequate emergency accommodation.
The absence of adequate public housing, and the numbers of would-be first-time buyers who have been priced out of the market, has been a bonanza for landlords. Private rental prices have reached heights unsurpassed even during the boom. More and more people are paying an insane portion of their total income on rent—over 50% of their net income in many cases—while others are being squeezed into homelessness.
Amazingly, the Government appears to think that the solution to the housing crisis is to subsidise those outrageous rents with Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) rather than get into the messy business of building and renting houses. And HAP turns out to be a nice little earner for more than one in four TDs who are landlords, including four members of the Cabinet and five Ministers of State in the 32nd Dáil. None of them recused themself or was asked to recuse themself from voting on landlord and tenant legislation.
By definition, anyone who can afford to rent on the private market at current prices is not eligible for public housing. Consequently, anyone on the housing list who is renting on the private market is receiving HAP of up to €2500 per month. It necessarily follows that each unit of public housing built by the Councils would represent a saving of up to €2500 per month and a painful loss to the landlords.
What looks at first like a progressive transfer of funds to the poorest is, in fact, a massive handout to landlords at the taxpayers’ expense.
One popular 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 simply fugging nuts to ask the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael pas-de-deux to solve the homelessness crisis they caused for their own ideological and financial purposes.
Mind the Health Gap
As with homelessness, the statistics on health are horrifying, the media images are gut-wrenching, and the facts are stark. On January 17, 2006, 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 that day. Fourteen years of emergency status later, on January 7, 2020, there were 760 patients on trolleys in those same Irish hospitals as Frank McGrath wrote in leftbucket.com.
In June 2016—ten years into the emergency—the Dáil established the Committee on the Future of Healthcare. Its brief was to achieve cross-party political agreement on the health service’s future direction and devise a ten-year plan for reform. In May 2017, the Committee presented the Sláintecare Report to the Government. They shelved it. The Government that followed them, the Grand Coalition, left it on the same shelf. It’s still there.
The number of people waiting for access to healthcare is now in or around one million—from a total population in the Republic of 4.88 million—with more and more waiting many months and years. It’s hardly looney-left to say that it’s past time for urgent action. We could start by implementing Sláintecare and ending the atrocious, inefficient, unfair, and undemocratic two-tier system of access to healthcare in Ireland. But the Sláintecare report remains on its shelf because of a lack of will to bring it forward. They’re waiting for the market to fix that as well.
In the meantime, they’re considering privatising the state-owned Voluntary Health Insurance (VHI)—a signpost to the future.
Mind the Water Gap
Who knew the final straw for the Irish commoners would be the introduction of water charges? That put feet on the streets. 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 cleaning the air, but they can’t charge us for breathing it. And they can charge us 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’re wondering 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 serious appetite for stopping at any time in the near or distant future, the loss of more than 40% of water, treated at our expense, that leaks through the sieves currently passing for water pipes in Ireland. 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.
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 boost 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. 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 the one-in-five children who live in poverty. Successive Governments pay lip service to creating a universal health service, or building homes for the homeless, or delivering clean water efficiently. And then they leave it up to the market. In this new world order, public rights and welfare have been made subordinate to property rights, citizens have become taxpayers, and workers have become human resources.
Nobody will be surprised to hear that Ireland is one of the world’s largest corporate tax havens. That 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 $25,310 a year, lower than the OECD average of $33,604 a year. But there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest (OECD Better Life Index).
Income and wealth inequality, health, housing, and managing the planet’s resources are the natural 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 and make all healthcare free for all of us. Remember that air and water are precious, and will become more so in the future, so stop poisoning them. 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 address these issues was forty years ago. The second-best time is now.
[i] A bin charge of, say, €500 annually (about €10 per week) would be 5% of €10,000 per year, 4.1% of €12,912 (basic state pension), but 0.5% 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% 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.
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, they tell us, 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’.
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.