Déardaoin, Nollaig 31, 2009

The Scandal of Poverty in Modern Ireland


Poverty is by no means a new phenomenon in Ireland.

Despite emerging from a decade of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom, poverty and especially fuel poverty, the inability to heat the home adequately because of low household income and energy inefficient housing, remains a major problem for a large number of people on both sides of Britain’s border.

The recent spell of extreme cold weather, with temperatures dropping to below -10 degrees in many areas, merely serves to highlight the true extent of the effects the recent budget cutbacks will have on working people and the most vulnerable in our society.

Throughout the entire Celtic Tiger era, at a time when the Twenty-Six County administration had wealth of an unprecedented level in the public coffers and while the business class and their political cronies were living lavish and expensive lifestyles, many children often lay awake at night, cold and hungry. Young kids went off to school in the morning without a proper breakfast, in many instances without breakfast at all, and without proper footwear and clothing to protect them from the cold and wet.

For those families on low incomes, it was a daily struggle to keep a roof over their heads, to put food on the table, to heat their homes adequately, to clothe themselves and to try to stave off sickness. For far too many people, that was a struggle they ultimately lost, succumbing to cold and hunger, homelessness, ill-health and even death.

Research compiled by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, published in 2007, showed that, every year during the winter months, almost 3,000 people die due to preventable, cold-related illness. According to the report, fuel poverty directly effects people’s health and the levels of fuel poverty in Ireland were “unacceptably high”.

This analysis is supported by the Combat Poverty Agency, who made it clear that people “who live in poverty are at greater risk of poor mental and physical health: they get sick more often and die younger than people who are better-off”.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office in the Twenty-Six Counties show that, in 2008, more than four per cent of people were still living in consistent poverty, with almost 15 per cent at risk of poverty. Almost a third of those living in consistent poverty were children.

All the figures above have, almost certainly, risen over the past 12 months as the recession kicked in and are set to rise even further due to the latest budget cuts.

Pay cuts of five per cent on low income workers, cuts in child benefit and social welfare, the scrapping of the Christmas bonus, the introduction of prescription charges, the carbon tax and increase in fuel costs will now result in a sharp decline in the living standards of working people.

It is not as if the administration in Leinster House wasn’t warned of the impact these cuts would have. In the run-up to the Twenty-Six County budget, organisations such as St Vincent De Paul that work on a daily basis with those most effected by poverty, warned them of the effects that any cuts on low income workers and social welfare recipients while at the same time increasing fuel costs would have.

St Vincent De Paul made clear that the effects of fuel poverty are “far reaching, affecting the health of those who are fuel poor along with causing premature mortality”. Noting the fact that two thirds of welfare recipients already needed assistance in paying their fuel bills, they made clear in no uncertain terms that such increased fuel costs and cuts would add to people’s hardship, increase poverty and result in many people going without food and other basic necessities.

éirígí, Shell to Sea and many other progressive groups also pointed out that claims by the business and political class that these cuts were essential and that there was no alternative to them, were, in fact, bogus.

Contrary to Twenty-Six County finance minister Brian Lenihan’s claim that “there is no pot of gold that can be raided from the wealthy that can solve our difficulties”, more than a third of the entire wealth of the southern state lies in the hands of just one per cent of the population, capital that remained untouched by this budget.

Hundreds of billions of euro worth of natural resources, such as oil and gas, also lie under the Irish seabed, the rights to these resources shamefully given away to multi-national corporations such as Shell, by previous Fianna Fáil-led administrations.

Yet Brian Lenihan and his cronies in the Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition took a deliberate decision not to nationalise these natural resources and not to target the wealthy elite who amassed billions upon billions of euro during the Celtic Tiger era for themselves on the backs of the labour of workers. The very people who are largely responsible for creating the economic crisis in the first place through a mixture of incompetence, greed and corruption, escaped Budget 2010 with their wealth intact.

Lenihan and co ignored the advice of SVP and others working with the poorest sections of Irish society and decided instead to slash the already inadequate incomes of low paid workers and social welfare recipients in order to bail out the banks and protect the extravagant lifestyles of the business class.

In the wake of Lenihan’s decision, Saint Vincent De Paul said that the social welfare cuts will increase hardship for families and “push people into debt”. Children’s charity Barnardo’s also supported this viewpoint, pointing out that more than six per cent of children in Ireland were already living in poverty in 2008 and that the latest cuts “will greatly add to the hardship and poverty experienced by children”.

As we enter 2010, the stark reality is that more and more families, and particularly children, will sink deeper into poverty. As increased numbers of people find they are unable to buy sufficient fuel to heat their homes, to buy adequate winter clothing and to provide proper nourishment for themselves and their families, more people will fall ill and die.

The biggest scandal in all of this is that it is all so completely unnecessary – with the political will it would not be allowed to happen. Those families that fall into poverty and poverty-related illnesses and deaths will do so, not by accident or act of god. They will do so because of very cold and calculated decisions taken by those who hold the reins of power, because of those who introduce cutbacks in the full knowledge of the damaging effects these cuts will have.

Every single one of those politicians that voted for Budget 2010 shares direct responsibility for every person that falls ill or dies as a result. For them, their neo-liberal capitalist agenda and their belief in a small minority’s right to amass vast profits, takes priority over the health and well being of workers and those surviving on welfare. To them, the ill and dying are merely “collateral damage” in their quest to attain their ill-gotten gains – a sad indictment of modern Ireland and those who currently misrule it.

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