After the Referendum: How Equal Is Ireland?


We might’ve voted for equality in large numbers when it came to the marriage referendum, but the likelihood that this will impact on the way the country is run or the lived realities for many appears unlikely. This week the Irish Government is once again having their knuckles wrapped by the UN in Geneva for failing to live up to the documents they sign around the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. The reality is that there has been the imposition of austerity measures on the sections of Irish society who can least afford it. The inevitable by-product is inequality, increasing poverty and deprivation. The message is simple, economy trumps all else and lip service is all that is all that is paid in terms of human rights or equality. Emily Logan – Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission said as much, she said that ‘budgetary decisions had been made without any consideration of the State's human rights obligations.’ This is the reality that needs to be examined, especially in the aftermath of the sight of politicians kissing, smiling, hugging each other and slapping each other on the backs as champions of equality in Dublin Castle.

The reality for Ireland is that there is an alarming rate in the growth of inequality. This is supported by the evidence produced by the Nevin Economic Research Institute, which stated recently that the rate of deprivation tripled. They went on to say that “Between 2007 and 2013 (the latest year data is available), the CSO’s Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) shows that the deprivation rate almost tripled – from 11.8% to 30.5% of the population. Deprivation is measured as the percentage of the population who report that they are unable to afford two or more eleven basic items.” So the reality for many people is that they were going without heating, adequate clothing, or eating properly. TASC – the Economic Think Tank produced an excellent report in February (Cherishing All Equally: Economic Inequality in Ireland) which illustrates where we are heading in terms of equality, and the answer is closer to USA (inequality) and further away from Scandinavia. A good indicator is to see what the share is of income, and in Ireland we have the top 10% of income earners have 34% of the gross income, whilst the bottom 90% have the rest. Looking at it another way, the top 10% have 58% of the wealth, whilst the bottom half (that’s 50% of people) have 12%.

But all you have to do is be aware of what kind of policies have been implemented. Talk to one of your young friends on skype who has left the country because they could not find a job and they had their social welfare cut in half, talk to someone who's earning a top-up on jobbridge. Talk to the Dunnes Stores workers who are fighting against zero-hour contracts, which should’ve been outlawed by government. Talk to the nurses who are appealing for more resources in order to make our health system work for their patients. Talk to the refugees trapped in our ‘Reception centre’s’ living in a prison camp on €21 a week. Talk to the thousands of people who cannot afford another stealth tax in the form of the water charge, after last year’s property tax. Talk to anyone who is working with their community after the savage cuts that they’ve suffered. Talk to the Travellers who have a male suicide rate that is 7 times that of the general population and had cuts to their education budget of 86.6%. Talk to the young woman who had to borrow money from friends in order to fly to England to terminate her pregnancy. Talk to the single parents, talk to the home helps, talk to the carers, talks to the Teachers, the unemployed, those on a housing list and those without homes, and they’ll tell you how inequitable this society is. A child could tell you this, talk to the one in three in this republic who is deprived of basic necessities, or any of the 17.9% who live at risk of poverty, that’s nearly 140,000. It is hard to think about equality when you are hungry and cold.

More referendums appear inevitable. The repeal of the 8th amendment makes sense and would be progressive if we can strike it from the constitution. Whilst these changes (marriage equality, abortion, etc) are very important in people's lives they don't have any effect on the state-corporate power system. Legal changes grant people more freedom in their lives but crucially does not allow them more input into how the system is designed or how it works. Behind the curtain of the poll booth, it is business as usual. Changing laws by means of a referendum is one thing, changing the nature of how the game is run is quite another. Austerity is the policy whereby the wheels get put back on the neo-liberal juggernaut and Capitalism crashes on crushing lives in its wake. The evidence is that the most vulnerable and poorer pay the biggest price for the system to right itself, and the inevitable result is an increase in inequality. Referendums are small potatoes as long as the system remains intact and the illusion of democracy is maintained.

Nevin Economic Institute: Cutting back & going without – deprivation and the recession, Mícheal Collins, 11.06.2015

TASC, Cherishing All Equally: Economic Inequality in Ireland, p.26

All-Ireland Traveller Health Study, 2010,

Travelling with Austerity, B. Harvey, 2013

Children’s Rights Alliance: Report Card for 2015 – 4. Right to Adequate Standard of Living