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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Social solidarity is necessary in the time ahead


I have given a lot of thought in recent times as to what type of society has emerged in Ireland as a consequence of the Celtic Tiger. Such analysis is important if we are to both work our way out of the current crisis and build a fairer society. Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that there is no such thing as community only individuals. Her Government fostered a dog-eat-dog mentality and worked against any notion of social solidarity. The welfare state had to be dismantled; public services privatised, small Government and low regulation was sacrosanct and massive wage differentials necessary to increase motivation. All ideas that underpinned Government policies here during the Celtic Tiger years and that has created a nation of individuals as opposed to a society.

Now that our economy has come crashing down around us and our public finances are in freefall the failure of these policies are obvious. People are becoming more and more irritated at the unjust and unfair nature of our society. Golden handshakes, outrageous expenses and the immoral salaries of bankers, business executives and some at the top of the public sector is causing understandable consternation among those feeling the pain of the current crisis. So how do we get out of this mess and what kind of new patriotism do we need?

We need a new commitment to social solidarity. We need to move back to being a nation of communities and not individuals. Thatcherist policies need to be given a decent burial. In November the trade union movement is mobilising for a national day of action designed to force the Government’s hand in advance of an expected painful budget. These are mostly the same trade unions, with notable exceptions, that acquiesced to Government policies through successive partnership agreements that increased wage differentials and did nothing to tackle poverty. There is one certainty about what needs to happen in the future – the need to sort out our public finances. This will require a combination of tax increases, cuts in public spending and fresh policies to grow the economy. To get back to what I was advocating earlier – social solidarity – all of this needs to happen with an explicit commitment to protect the most vulnerable, the unemployed and those on low pay.

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