Whose recovery is it, anyway?

Conor Scully argues that the pro-business, pro-growth attitude pushed by Fine Gael leaves out students and workers and furthers inequality.

COMMENTLast week, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar gave an interview to the Irish Independent, which makes for unsettling reading. In it, he speaks of how increasing the resources allocated to hospitals would actually lead to a worse service overall, as staff apparently become sluggish and complacent when there are enough beds for all the patients.

He laughs when asked whether or not abortion is a class issue, saying he doesn’t understand the question. When the interviewer, Niamh Horan, explains that richer women are more likely to be able to travel to the UK to get an abortion, Varadkar replies: “No, I don’t think it’s a class issue”.

This ignorance about the impact of Fine Gael’s policies on the poorer sections of Irish society is grim in and of itself, but is made worse by the fact that the party is expected to come out on top once again in the upcoming elections. Over the past five years in government, Fine Gael has consistently enacted policies that widen the gulf between rich and poor, to the point where the top 20% own nearly 75% of the wealth, compared to 0.2% for the bottom 20%. Poverty rates have more than doubled since 2008, with more than one in ten children now living in consistent poverty.

All over Dublin, Enda Kenny’s face looks serenely down on us from election posters that urge us to “keep the recovery going”, a message that will no doubt inspire the hundreds of people who have been made homeless under Kenny’s leadership. After all, there’s “no reason” why they should be sleeping on the streets. It must be a choice! Kenny and his gang talk of “stability”, with the hope that voters will be scared into electing a coalition of his own party and most likely Fianna Fail, rather than a messy, frightening government comprised of left parties and independents.

This talk of stability is really quite intuitive – surely we don’t want a return to the erratic days of 2008, and would much rather live in the utopian society that is no doubt just around the corner. But this is also a glorious act of doublespeak – where is the stability for the 20% of Irish youth that are unemployed, or the thousands of students who fear their rent could be raised at any moment?

Neoliberal economics, to which Kenny and Fine Gael religiously subscribe, requires constant growth, and constant growth requires us to foster conditions that are good for business. Centre-right parties like Fine Gael and Renua fall over each other in the race to be seen as more “pro-business”. The obvious implication is that what is good for business is necessarily good for people, and that seems logical – businesses bring jobs, which bring money, and everyone loves money!

But it’s not as simple as that. Neoliberal policies actively go against what is good for the majority of workers, by discouraging trade unions and allowing for “flexible” (read: erratic) hours contracts. But we can’t tell businesses to treat their workers better, or else they will close up shop here and migrate to the ill-defined paradise that is “abroad” – full of educated people who would love nothing more than to steal the jobs Enda has fought so valiantly to create.

Neoliberalism also hates the public sector, as it is always inefficient – “efficiency is key!” being one of the cornerstones of neoliberal ideology, along with “most unemployed people don’t even want to work!”, and “disabled people contribute very little to the economy!” This is why Fine Gael want to introduce a student loan scheme, that would shift the burden of paying for third-level education from the state to the students themselves.

It’s also one of the reasons the public healthcare budget has been cut by over a quarter since 2008 – lest we forget, too many beds and x-ray machines will cause nurses and doctors to start falling asleep all over the place. Varadkar of course has private health insurance, for which he pays €700 a year – an amount it would take someone living on the minimum wage five months to amass, if they spent their discretionary income on absolutely nothing else. A long time indeed, but not nearly as long as the eighteen months that over 2,000 people have been waiting for a hospital appointment.

Look, if you believe that poor people are annoying and slovenly, and therefore deserve to be constantly betrayed by the government, then that is absolutely your right in a democratic state. You’re probably evil, but at least you’re open about it, and I’m sure your local Fine Gael TD will be delighted to get your first preference. But for everyone else, I would suggest thinking more deeply about the “recovery” that Fine Gael have brought about, and whether or not you care about how the benefits from this improvement are divided.