Media Library


Speech at Social Justice Ireland Conference 2024

Davenport Hotel, Dublin, 31 January 2024

A cháirde,

Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Ollamh Tony Fahey as an gcuireadh cineálta bheith libh is labhairt libh inniu ag bhúr comhdháil bhliantúil comhdháil speisialta ag a bhfuil muid ag tuírt aitheantas, agus ár mbuíochas do beirt saoránaigh as an gnáth agus mo bhuíochas pearsanta do John McGeady as do réamhrá cineálta.

[May I thank Professor Tony Fahey for the kind invitation to address you today at your special conference in which we are giving recognition and our thanks to two extraordinary citizens, and my sincere personal thanks to John McGeady for your kind introduction.]

Above all else, may I say how today is such a fitting opportunity to applaud the contributions of two socially engaged citizens who have done so much over the course of half a century with tenacity, evidence and perseverance, in research, advocacy, publishing and campaigning for a more just Ireland, indeed for a more just world.

We are all greatly indebted to Dr Sean Healy and Sr Brigid Reynolds who retire today from their roles as Chief Executive and Company Secretary respectively of the independent social justice think-tank Social Justice Ireland. They leave behind them such a rich legacy of independent social analysis and evidence-based policy formulation.

Whether it be their work on that most important research-based and inclusive institution, the National Economic and Social Council, or on government task forces dealing with social and economic policy issues ranging from taxation to the labour market, housing to poverty, income adequacy to rural development, or the more than 20 books on public policy that they have written together, there can be no doubt that the advocacy work undertaken by Dr Healy and Sr Reynolds has assisted in the achieving of a more inclusive, sustainable society here in Ireland.

Their focus on human rights and the public good has been a powerful intervention – yes, giving a voice to those who do not have a voice, tackling the root causes of multiple social problems relating to disadvantage, but more importantly their work constituted a concerted narrative to the lazily descriptive or the even stronger tendency to see gradualism as all that might be achieved and allowed.

The work of Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds on poverty, and specifically on the metrics of poverty, on promoting a shared understanding and recognition of the importance of including measurements of poverty and poverty targets in social partnership agreements – such work has been so very valuable in providing an evidence basis for social policy alternatives. Your leadership on this area is such an important legacy.

The promotion and development of an inclusive, equitable society in which everyone’s rights and dignity are recognised and honoured should not be a controversial idea in a constitutionally based republic where equality as a value is not contested, and yet this is work that is needed now more than ever. It is not only that inequality is deepening, that its beneficiaries are ever more concentrated, it is that the discussion space for challenging this is now so much less available, accountable or accessible.

Oxfam’s recent report, Inequality Inc., is one of the more recent publications on the contemporary expression of such deepening, a damning indictment of a failed paradigm, one that has enabled the yawning inequality that we witness in so many parts of the world, an inequality that has even been championed by many as a modern articulation of ‘progress’, and there is less and less inhibition on its being granted.

It is an indictment, too, on how corporate power has come to divide our world with such pernicious consequences. The preface by Bernie Sanders to the Oxfam report suggests that the report represents a clarion call for a new era of public action. He is not over-optimistic, however, that such a call will be made. 

According to Oxfam, each of our recent, interacting crises – be it the global pandemic, spiralling war, the cost-of-living crisis, or climate breakdown – has widened the gulf, not just between the rich and people living in poverty, but in particular between an oligarchic few and the vast majority.

The report describes what is a fundamental choice: that between a new age of billionaire supremacy, controlled by monopolists and financiers, or transformative public power that is founded upon equality and dignity. The report, too, raises the issue of the need for a wealth tax, a tax that has always been stressed as being less important for its aggregate yield than for what it reveals as information as to inequality and wealth.

The statistics contained in this excellent research of Oxfam illustrate an appalling vista, one that has its gender, racist and striking socio-economic dimensions.

Since 2020, the five richest people in the world, all of whom are men, have seen their fortunes more than double, while almost five billion people have seen their wealth fall.

Globally, men own $105 trillion more wealth than women, the difference in wealth being equivalent to more than four times the size of the entire US economy.

The world’s richest 1 percent own 43 percent of all global financial assets. The richest 1 percent globally emit as much carbon pollution as the poorest two-thirds of humanity.

In the United States, the wealth of a typical Black household is just 15.8 percent of that of a typical white household.

In Brazil, on average, white people have incomes more than 70 percent higher than those of Afro-descendants.

Just 0.4 percent of over 1,600 of the world’s largest and most influential companies are publicly committed to paying their workers a living wage and support payment of a living wage across their value chains.

Such statistics tell us so much about the assumed, abstract, ethical foundations of our taken-for-granted failed paradigm of profit, consumption and accumulation, one which has been promoted for over four decades as a virtuous model of economic development that rewards and penalises justly, a paradigm that emphasises the individual, privatised experience of the economic over any collectively transcendent version of shared welfare and economic security and sustainability.

We see the paradigm’s adverse and corrosive impacts in so many areas, including the ongoing erosion of basic public services in so many countries of the world, resulting in rising poverty, social exclusion and deprivation. Above all, we see the paradigm’s impact on yawning inequality.

That Thomas Piketty’s excellent work on this subject is among that which is most often quoted is for a good reason. Piketty’s early predictions of a world of low economic growth and extreme inequality are coming to pass as we witness the ongoing concentrations of economic and political power through the accumulation of wealth by the very richest with all the attendant social ills, most notably falling cohesion in the streets of the world.

Today we in Ireland mark 50 years of research and advocacy by two leading individuals. This year also marks 50 years since that defining and uplifting moment that was the 1974 Kilkenny Conference on Poverty which I attended. It heard contributions from Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, and went on to draw on the work of Séamus Ó Cinnéide and others. That conference represented a beacon of hope. The subsequent establishment of Combat Poverty its funding for social research drew on the conference but also on United States’ President Johnson’s combat poverty programmes, including the Head Start Programme.

The popular shock awareness of poverty in Ireland was made possible by investigative journalism of the highest order by brave journalists such as Declan Burke-Kennedy, Mary Rafferty and Vincent Browne.

The fundamental importance of analysis on poverty and its consequences has been heightened since the abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency in 2008 as part of the austerity-driven so-called ‘quango-culling’ exercise that so shamefully led to the demise of that organisation which played such an important part in the funding of social research and in advocacy and policy critique, and of course it also defunded a small unit that was our United Nations Association.

I recall discussing poverty initiatives and possible Irish initiatives with the late Flor O’Mahony and Frank Cluskey.

The task of creating an ethical society, one that seeks for its citizens to live together in an ethical and inclusive manner, a society that promotes values and implements policies that foster and advance such a vision – such a task has been, may I suggest, at the very core of the work of Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds for the past five decades.

The demise of Combat Poverty was the result of a sustained campaign by authoritarian conservative forces within Irish bureaucracy. It was from the same ideological well as that which had, in its day, sold out the Land Commission. Having an administrative system that is transparent, accountable, but also flexible remains a challenge.

Critical work in the social policy sphere is work that has tirelessly sought to ensure that every member of society might be a participant, and society as a whole might flourish and thrive in an inclusive and sustainable manner. It is work that pays a particular focus on inequality, on those who are vulnerable or on the margins of society. It is work that is founded on the belief that the dignity of all is enhanced when those on the margins of society are included, given a voice. It is work that fosters an ethical and moral society, and it has not been welcome to some well-meaning people who believe that structural change is to be avoided.

Such challenges recall to my mind the intellectual giants of social policy, such as Professor Richard Titmuss, Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal. Titmuss’s was an engaged view of research and scholarship, one that did not avoid the challenge or the controversy of engaging with competing models of government policy, be it on public health or pensions, poverty or social justice.

The work of Titmuss also confronted the challenging question of whether social policy (including key matters such as social welfare, redistribution, pensions) had become regarded as residual, a tool whose purpose is for adjustment rather than any meaningful, embedded egalitarianism.

I so welcome this opportunity to salute the work done by Sean Healy in particular on the concept of Universal Basic Income, a concept that would, if implemented correctly, ensure that every citizen is given a basic income irrespective of circumstances, providing everybody with the dignity of access to the basics. It is a concept that has been gaining traction in our post-pandemic world of reassessment and recalibration.

However, I see even greater promise in the achievement of universal basic services. These conceptual schemes do not stand in competition to each other. I believe their reconciliation will be a major achievement.

We continue to have so much work to do to deliver equitable access to universal basic services. There is excellent scholarly work available to us such as that of Anna Coote as well as that powerful advocacy by Catherine McGuinness in her report published by the National Social Service Board which assessed the appropriate role and great value to policy formulation by the voluntary sector. Surely food security can be an agreed policy and humanitarian objective under which we all can unite and work towards.

Your advocacy, Dr Healy and Sr Brigid, too, on the need for a new social contract is a crucial intervention, one that must be taken seriously if we are to live in a flourishing, morally grounded society. The social contract that you suggested, one comprised of five chief elements (I might order them differently) – a thriving economy, decent social services, just and fair taxation, real participation and sustainability – is one that would build cohesion and solidarity, foster a more generous and inclusive society that would also share risks more collectively.

Minouche Shafik is one among a diversity of scholarly and spiritual thinkers and writers who are presenting a compelling case for such a new social contract between citizen and state[1].

In a nod to Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach, such a society would broaden opportunities, asking citizens to contribute for as long, and in the form, as they wish to, thus enabling everyone to fulfil beyond sufficiency to a wider experience of their potential. Shafik identifies the key elements of a more generous social contract, one founded on solidity, solidarity and harmony, one that recognises our interdependencies, shared inevitabilities, supports and invests more in each other, to build a more inclusive, cohesive society together, one which gives authentic delivery of the social justice, solidarity and equity principles that underpin the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, perhaps our greatest achievement in recent times as a moment of hope, global solidarity and empathy.

When I last spoke to Social Justice Ireland, in 2017, we had come from a period when the state had retreated, or been ideologically pushed to retreat, where its role had been redefined, the citizen’s social opportunity to fully participate or flourish, as many social philosophers would put it, had been diminished, and unaccountable sources of wealth and power had advanced.

We had witnessed the expansion of a paradigm that, at its source, is concerned primarily with “responding to the market”. This is offered as the pre-eminent justification behind a taken-for-granted method of determining and distributing wealth and power in our society. This paradigm has resulted in the rise of the unaccountable which constitutes the most significant threat to democracy even in what describes itself as the ‘developed’ world.

A radical paradigm shift is needed in moral, theoretical, policy and accepted consciousness levels, and with urgency, if we are to have any hope of steering our shared future on this planet towards a sustainable, flourishing one. Such a shift would go some way to mitigating the democratic crisis, restoring trust on the European street where xenophobia and racism are on the rise owing to the corrosive nature of the democratic deficit and what Jürgen Habermas referred to so many years ago as a “legitimation crisis”.

Multilateral bodies seem to have accepted that we need such a fundamental and radical paradigm shift, not just in relation to economics, but in terms of our very way of living – what Professor Hartmut Rosa would refer to as our “broken connections”, our “catastrophe of resonance”.

New ideas, new movements and, crucially, a sharing of consciousness between movements are, thus, now required and, even more, their effective communication to citizens – ideas based on equality, universal public services, equity of access, sufficiency, sustainability.

New ideas are fortunately available in the form of practicable suggestions for an alternative paradigm of social economy within ecological responsibility. Crucially, they must find their way on to the public street. They must find their way on to the curriculum in the places where economics is being taught. They must find their way into bureaucratic structures and institutions in which a rigid authoritarianism has become a key feature, when openness and dialogue would yield greater results.

Thankfully, we now have a richer discourse than perhaps we did a decade-and-a-half ago at the last point of crisis, texts that are practicable as well being emancipatory, thanks to scholarly contributions from, inter alia, Tim Jackson, Ian Gough, Anna Coote, Mariana Mazzucato, Sylvia Walby, Kate Raworth, Peadar Kirby, Mary Murphy and many others who advance ecologically sustainable and socially progressive alternatives to our destructive, failed model.

This scholarship has been suggesting for some time now the real, emancipatory potential for a new, recovered political economy as part of an inclusive discourse, and I have called for many years now on third-level institutions, both in Ireland and abroad, to ensure that its elements are allowed space to be taught and, thus, for it to be available to inform a pluralism in thinking and ultimately in policy.

The inter-relatedness of the local and the global requires that issues be addressed at different levels to ensure appropriate solutions are identified and implemented. Social Justice Ireland has brought this perspective to bear on everything it does. I take this opportunity today to applaud it for this work, work which has been visionary in its setting out a path to an achievable, sustainable future and the best ways to achieve it, responsive to policy, opinion, needs and environment, and credible in the purpose of its work, in the quality of research offered and in the values it promotes.

The combination of the local and the global reflects the need to marry the ethics of our international engagement to the ethics of our domestic policy – a need that is about more than an aspiration for consistency, but is grounded in the universality of human rights among all of the peoples of the planet. This has been central to the papers I gave last year on food security in Dakar and Rome.

Your conference today is an opportunity to consider the social justice issues facing not just Irish society but the global community from the perspective of justice and human rights. The conference is an opportunity, too, to reflect on our ethical relationship with those issues, to reflect on Ireland’s place in the world and its relationship with other regions and societies, to meet the responsibilities each of us has to engage with issues of justice and injustice in our work, in our public lives as active citizens, and in all of our daily economic and social actions.

In so many areas of policy, Ireland will face important questions in the years ahead about how we can ensure that our domestic policies match our international aspirations and hopes. This is particularly the case in areas of environmental policy, sustainability and biodiversity, but also in inter-related areas of, inter alia, caring, agriculture policy, enterprise policy including social enterprise, transport policy and energy policy.

Such policies will impact on broad social and economic policy domestically, but will also have far-reaching consequences for Ireland’s reputation as an international interlocutor and force for good, a voice for peace, and especially in its role as an advocate for the concerns of smaller nations, or what is often termed the ‘Global South’.

As I have already mentioned, the concept of the state, its value, its capacity as a positive redistributive force, has been the subject of strong, ideological opposition in the early days of the Irish State and, even in the modern period, considerable derision. Yet, as Professor Mariana Mazzucato has written so convincingly, the entrepreneurial state actively creates and shapes market outcomes for the better. May I add that the unaccountable corporate sector has shown itself to be far more dangerous than any state.

The democratic state, as an agent in coordinating economic activity, is challenged therefore to play an important, indeed pivotal, role in so many aspects of our contemporary circumstances. The need for such a role has advanced, become urgent even, again, whether those who have responsibility, including at the level of our Union, wish to discuss it or not.

We live in a world that is going through a period of rising political authoritarianism, polarisation, and violence. It is an atmosphere that threatens democracy and promotes racism, division and exclusion.

Our migration policies must confront this challenge of ensuring that respect for the migrant and the vulnerability of those who are displaced infuses how we act at home as well as what we do far from our own shores. There are great challenges here in responding effectively to the rise of an ugly, ill-informed rhetoric, a discourse from the far right that is encroaching into the mainstream, one that demonises the ‘Other’ and sows fear and poisonous xenophobia in the name of an insidious, exclusionary nativism.

In times of multiple interacting crises, human and natural, national and global, it is vital to recognise the need for a solidarity that binds us together as humans, and acknowledge the responsibility we share for our vulnerable planet and for all those who dwell on it.

Now is not only the time to dream of alternative utopias, but for mobilisation for their achievement.

Now is the time for the realignment of the pursuit of science and technology towards universal public good and away from the industrial military complex that demonstrates such little accountability, overwhelming influence, and whose principal purpose is the generation of profits, even at the cost of undermining democratic accountability through corruption, unaccountable lobbying, and bribery in continents where millions are starving and societies lack basic conditions for survival.

Now is the time, I suggest, to envision how our lives could be without war, famine, hunger and greed in a just world that eschews the poisonous ideals of imperialism and xenophobia and embraces the decent instincts of humanity.

Guím gach rath ar do chomhdháil agus, arís, guím gach rath ar an Dr Healy agus ar an Bean Reynolds ar scor thar a bheith taitneamhach agus torthúil, ceann atá tuilte go han-mhaith.

[I wish your conference well and, once more, may I wish Dr Healy and Sr Reynolds a most enjoyable and fruitful retirement, one that has been so very well-earned.]

Beir beannacht.