The battle of ideas
Thirty years ago last Saturday in an interview in Woman's Own, the late British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spelt out her own narrow view of society and the role of government. Thatcher said: “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!”
The policies of Thatcher fractured British society. Her right wing model of government increased poverty and stripped families of the means of a decent quality of life. Thatcherism promoted the individual and minimised society's support for those less able to defend themselves. It was about less state involvement, so-called smaller government, less taxation on business and the elites. It was about reducing the ability of workers to defend themselves against exploitation. And if this meant using the law and the police to smash workers then so be it.
Last week, in a speech in Dublin to the business organisation Ibec, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar set out his Fine Gael version of this same Tory vision. He said: “This government believes in hope and aspiration, a better life as something to aspire to … it is not something that can be handed down by someone else. The government can’t solve everyone’s problems for them …”
The language may be different but behind the rhetoric the underlying philosophy of conservatism, whether in Ireland or Britain, is essentially the same. Leo’s vision is Irish Thatcherism with a fresh coat of paint. In Taoiseach Varadkar’s state if you fall behind you are on your own. If your homeless don’t expect much help from the state. When he talks about a ‘culture of aspiration’ or a ‘better life’ he is speaking to those who are already well off. His focus is also on a section of voters who he hopes to persuade to come over to Fine Gael. That's legitimate enough. That's politics.
But Taoiseach Varadkar's Republic of Opportunity is a narrow minded vision of a 26 County state rooted in a conservative Mé Féin philosophy. It is a million miles away from the vision and progressive principles set out in the 1916 Proclamation.
He ignores the reality that citizens caught at the sharp end of the crises in housing and health also have their aspirations, their hopes. They also have personal ambitions. However, the society shaped by the establishment parties in the southern state means that the odds are always tilted against them. These citizens are not only the homeless or the poor, or older citizens or folks denied proper health care. They include the majority of people whose lives are consumed with the effort to rear their families. People struggling to rear their families.
A genuine republic would not allow homelessness to reach emergency proportions. It would long ago have taken action to prevent 3000 of its children being homeless. It would not tolerate the scandal and indignities in our hospital A&E wards. It would support those citizens with intellectual difficulties denied respite care or other supports. It would not facilitate the huge levels of disadvantage and inequality which exist in society in the 26 counties.
What differentiates Sinn Féin from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is not just our determination to achieve a united, independent Ireland. Sinn Féin also believes that citizens have rights and entitlements and that society must be shaped to help them to achieve their full potential. In the here and now we believe people have the right to a decent home, to a job and a decent wage, to the highest quality of public services, especially in health, housing and education, and a safer, cleaner environment. In 2016 Sinn Féin published a clear costed plan to deliver a public health service, free at the point of delivery, which provides for citizens from the cradle to the grave, funded by direct taxation.
In our alternative budget next month we will unveil costed proposals to build houses.
These are all the responsibility of government and cannot be abdicated to the market as championed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
One key role of government is to help shape a society that is tolerant and that reflects and embraces the entirety of its people, not part of them. Why should gender be the basis for the exclusion of anyone? Or disability? Why should race or class or skin colour or creed give one group of human beings the ability to deny other human beings their full rights or entitlements as citizens? And if citizens have rights, why are they not all-encompassing rights, including economic rights? Genuine republicans in keeping with the vision of those who signed the Proclamation in 1916, believe that all human beings have the right, as a birthright, to be treated equally.
Society needs shaped to deliver this. A real Republic of Opportunity needs to be citizen centred and rights based. During the successful campaign for Marriage Equality I noted that some of those who were rightly in favour of equality on this issue might be not so fair minded on other equally important rights issues. They might be liberal on some matters but extremely conservative on others. Leo Varadkar is one of those conservatives.