Public Affairs

Trade Union Desk

The model of development utilised by the Irish State over the last four decades has now been consigned to the scrapheap of history, ICTU’s Macdara Doyle writes.

In recent years, the failure of the development model to deliver for citizens – particularly in the years since the 2008 crash – has been acutely evident to anyone who has cared to look. That leading political figures and parties appeared to have been surprised by this deficit and the inevitable public anger over recent times tells its own story about our model of governance.

In short, provision of critical essential services has been reduced to worn and threadbare versions of what they were supposed to be, a pale imitation of the key social infrastructure that other developed nations have put in place and which their citizens see as a core component of the Social Contract. 

Thus, the headline issues that resurfaced time and time again in the recent election were, predictably: housing; healthcare; transport; childcare; and the pension age (shorthand for fears about old age poverty and insecurity).

General Election 2020 saw those parties who clung closest to, or were most identified with, that development model punished accordingly. Parties that once commanded the heights of Irish politics and dominated Irish society, routinely mopping up 80 per cent of the vote and the bulk of Dáil seats between them, have now seen their combined hold on political life drop below the 50 per cent mark and fall perilously close to 40 per cent.

The 2020 vote was not a once off, but confirmed a downward trajectory that has been evident for the last 20 years. Individually, and in combination, they now represent a minority and, as polls during the contest revealed, it is a minority concentrated among older age cohorts. These demographics would suggest a grim future for both parties, something that even a radical reboot might not avert.

Underlying the failure of that development model is a clear and revealing pattern, one which saw the State over recent decades quietly attempt to absent itself from crucial areas of social provision and effectively devolve responsibility to the market. The process is more advanced in some areas than others, with housing the most obvious example, a failure that is emblematic of the inability of that development model to provide for the most basic needs of citizens.

In 1975, at a time of scarce resources, the State played a central role in housing provision, building just under 9,000 homes through local authorities. Such provision also acted as a stabilising factor in the wider housing market. Last year, that figure was just under 1,000 new homes built nationally. Despite assurances to the contrary the private sector not taken up the slack as they have little interest in the provision of affordable homes or rental accommodation. 

Housing experts routinely decry the hundreds of millions of euro per annum (750 million in 2018) provided to private landlords in rent supplement payments, with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform itself pointing out in a 2018 report that this represented poor value for money with the state receiving no asset in return.

Instead of simply transferring public money to private landlords, many of whom are large institutional investors and corporations, logic would dictate that it would be better employed as an investment in developing a new stock of badly needed public housing.

Indeed, it has been estimated that the for the overall cost of one rental supplement package the State could build two public, or affordable homes. It currently owns or controls enough land to build in excess of 100,000 such units. But as has become abundantly clear over recent years, logic or rationality plays no role when ideology sets the agenda, as it has done in Ireland and across Europe for the last 40 years, with clear and obvious consequences.

Here at home, this enormous failure of governance and policy in respect of housing has scarred the lives of untold numbers of children and families and will continue to exact a huge social cost into the future.

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