The steps required to achieve a fairer and more just Ireland

After years of decision-making at an elite level, a rights-based approach will give Irish people a stake in society, while necessary democratic reform will improve governance, says Fr Sean Healy.

The steps required to achieve a fairer and more just Ireland

IF Ireland is to build a fairer future, which most people would like to see, then people must be much more engaged in shaping the decisions that shape that future.

Decisions made during the economic crisis have raised serious questions concerning the democratic legitimacy of the processes by which these decisions are made, both in Ireland and in Europe.

In Ireland, decisions allocating vast resources to the financial sector were made by a few senior politicians and officials, sometimes without a full debate. The establishment of Nama is a prime example: Nama was set up rapidly, and its operations were initially extremely opaque. In its disposals of assets, Nama makes decisions affecting communities throughout Ireland, but those communities have little power to influence Nama.

At the European level, the bailout programmes have been overseen by the troika of the IMF, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank, none of which has a directly elected component. The troika is involved in making major decisions about resources and economic policy areas which were traditionally the preserve of democratically accountable national governments.

Often represented as mere technocrats, troika members actually have differing and very political views on the role of government, the functioning of labour markets, and the appropriate level of social security . For example, ECB president Mario Draghi, told the Wall Street Journal in February 2012 that “the European social model has already gone”.

Stricter European fiscal rules were adopted with relatively little debate, but their implications — particularly the increased supervisory powers of the Commission — have not been fully realised, except perhaps when the German Bundestag sees elements of the Irish budget before the Dáil does.

So what should be done? In a word, we need to reform our governance. It is widely recognised that Ireland’s governance was poor in certain areas prior to the economic crisis, particularly in relation to financial regulation.

Moreover, the economic crisis led to government making rash and hasty decisions without consultation, whether in relation to financial or budgetary policy, which have been recognised as damaging or — in the case of the bank guarantee — catastrophic. Reforming governance and widening participation are a necessity. Below are initiatives which could be taken immediately and would make a big difference.

Reform Policy Evaluation

Policy evaluation has been very poor in some cases throughout the long economic and social crisis. The steps taken by the Government to increase its research and evaluative capacity are welcome. However, the Government should also take steps to increase the transparency of budgetary and other important decisions, which are often opaque.

Government should publish its analysis of the distributional impact of budgetary measures, and engage in public debate in light of that analysis. The government previously published poverty impact assessments in the budget, but this practice was discontinued from Budget 2010. Government should begin this practice again and also adopt a gender inequality analysis and apply it to each budgetary measure. This should be a statutory responsibility of government.

A Rights-based approach

The importance of developing a rights-based approach to social, economic, and cultural issues should not be underestimated. The need to develop these rights is becoming ever more urgent for Ireland in the context of achieving recovery. Such an approach would go a long way towards addressing the growing inequality Ireland has been experiencing. Social, economic, and cultural rights should be acknowledged and recognised, just as civil and political rights have been.

Seven basic rights that are of fundamental concern to people who are socially excluded and/or living in poverty should be acknowledged and recognised. These are the rights to sufficient income to live life with dignity: meaningful work; appropriate accommodation; relevant education; essential healthcare; cultural respect; and real participation in society. To be achieved in practice, these rights will require greater public expenditure and provision of services.

Democratic Deliberation

Decisions taken by government must be openly debated both inside and outside the Oireachtas. Since 2008, austerity measures have been implemented in a haphazard manner, with little public debate and often a lack of explanation and justification for the measures taken by the Government.

Instead of reasoned debate with citizen and civil society participation, decisions have been taken at an elite level. For example, the Government has provided a high-level forum called the IFSC Clearing House Group for the financial industry, and 23 changes in the Finance Act 2012 were made to accommodate this group.

A new social model for Ireland must be founded on the idea of deliberative democracy, in which decisions about what kind of society and economy Ireland needs are founded upon reasoned and enlightened debate, and in which decisions taken by government are justified and accessible to the general public.

In such a process all stakeholders are involved in the framing, implementing and evaluating of policies and measures that impact on them. Everyone should have a voice in how our society is governed. Being consulted in a general election every five years is not enough. The proposed Public Participation Networks to be introduced in Local Authorities as part of the reform of local government will provide an opportunity for real engagement between local people and the local authorities across the country.

Social Justice Ireland’s Annual Socio-Economic Review, entitled Steps Towards A Fairer Future, published today, provides much more detail on these proposals.

* Fr Sean Healy is director of Social Justice Ireland

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