Last week, the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Green Party coalition government released their highly anticipated Budget 2024, thus setting forth their economic plan for their social and political agenda for this coming year. Government delivered for third-level students in many instances – an expansion of the Rent Tax Credit to students living in digs, an increase in the SUSI Grant rates, another €1,000 discount on fees, to name a few – however this, of course, does not deter interested parties from critiquing their measures. The Union for Students in Ireland (USI) labelled Budget 2024 as “an overall disappointment”, Sinn Féin called it a missed opportunity, and Holly Cairns TD opined that it was “an attempt to buy votes in the short term.”
These strong statements would naturally lead one to question the alternative, and the validity of the arguments made by opposition parties such as the Social Democrats, People Before Profit, and Sinn Féin. What could be done differently? Is government availing of its resources to the best of its ability? What would society look like if a leftist coalition gained a majority in the Dáil? It will come as a surprise to few that these three parties, all being distinctly left of centre, agree with many of the same alternative measures – there exists, however, still a certain amount of contrast between them, most probably as they range from left of centre to distinctly socialist.
The Social Democrats
The Social Democrats were the first party to preemptively publish their Alternative Budget, titled Unlocking the Future, close to a full week ahead of government’s publication of Budget 2024. With a commitment to large scale social projects, particularly pertaining to youth issues and infrastructure, it is undoubtedly titled appropriately. A document comprising exactly 60 pages, it read, in part: “Budget 2024 must strike a balance between providing relief to hard-pressed families and individuals as Ireland’s greatest inflationary surge in four decades continues, and dealing with the long-term challenges we face as a society.”
This statement straddles the thin yet distinct line that the Social Democrats often toe – through stressing “relief to hard-pressed families” (often called by Fine Gael ‘the squeezed middle’), it agrees tentatively with measures taken by government this week, examples of which include double social welfare payments in December and renewed credit for energy bills. It cements, however, its position on “long term challenges” that government may have forgotten, these being “building 10,000 affordable homes in 2024” and introducing a Culture and Media Card designed to encourage young people to take part in social, cultural, and artistic events. This idea is exemplary of the ambition and innovation that many believe government lacks, and has become a mainstay in the Social Democrats’ brand and image.
They further made the case for targeting financial supports to citizens on a means based scale, a belief from which government notably often exempts itself. This policy may serve as the basis for the reforms they propose regarding the SUSI Grant, which include an increase of 15% in grant rates and household reckonable income thresholds, as well as the expansion of access to SUSI to part-time students. Moreover, they proposed a €1,000 cut in third-level fees for this academic year, a measure that government took in Budget 2024, but the Social Democrats advocated for this to be a stepping stone towards a permanent reduction.
When analysing Unlocking the Future, one can obtain a clear picture of the Social Democrats’ plan of action, and of the voter which they hope to attract in the next election. They share government’s most appealing measures that are relatively easy to implement, however they separate themselves on the basis of championing long-term, large-scale projects which they trace back to their philosophy of social and economic protection of the citizen from the State. To put it simply: they would drop the ‘cash back in pockets’ policies and work to address the root causes of our society’s woes.
People Before Profit
As Ireland’s arguably sole mainstream socialist party, People Before Profit’s popularity with young voters can oftentimes result in their receiving warranted criticism at best, and harsh mockery at worst. What cannot be denied is the unrivalled ambition of their alternative budget, called A Better Future is Possible. Although relatively scarce in descriptions and long-from writing, they make up for this with precisely balanced books – €35.9 Billion in spending, supported by €36.3 Billion in revenue raised by the State. A significant portion of these revenue streams come from a wealth tax on the top 1% and 5% of earners, as well as a tax on excess profits of businesses.
Owing to the “economic inequality and manufactured scarcity of housing and public services”, People Before Profit argued, above all else, for the tackling of the cost of living crisis, and the provision of high quality, free public services from the State. They of course lended special attention to young people, a major support base of theirs, such as recognising the effect of rising rents on young people’s quality of life, and made policy pledges, namely to increase the maximum age to claim a child benefit to 19 years old.
In an amalgam of two of their highest priorities – housing and education – People Before Profit, if in the position of power, would provide 30,000 extra affordable student beds by 2029, which would cost €300 million in the first year alone. Abolition was a consistent motif which appeared throughout their budget, and by listing graduate and postgraduate fees, the student contribution charge, and PLC fees as a select few of the charges of which they would rid students, they effectively showed their commitment to eradicating all barriers to access to further education.
Postgraduate students and workers were also the recipient of specific attention, as the document vowed to “pay all postgraduate workers a living wage” and “fund towards abolishing fees for EU postgraduates and mature/repeating students”. Following the trend of SUSI expansion, People Before Profit advocated for a doubling of the maintenance grants, and a reduction of the adjacent rate, which is currently set at 30 kilometres, to 24 kilometres.
Following the specific policy points raised here, ranging from student housing to postgraduate workers’ rights, we see People Before Profit’s staunch commitment to the pillars of the Student Movement. Nearly every need of a student is met in this document, from their basic needs to final self-actualisation. The trouble, however, lies in the cost of it all. There simply is not, at the moment, the level of necessary funds for all of these projects, and it is highly questionable whether or not the political will of the people is in favour of such high spending during an inflationary period, in spite of the plans being undoubtedly admirable.
Most probably owing to Sinn Féin’s heightened popularity, and thus the high probability of their entering government after the next general election, it is understandable that their alternative budget echoes and mirrors Budget 2024 in a multitude of manners. This, however, does not deter Sinn Féin from either harshly critiquing government actions, or somewhat taking credit for the most welcomed measures from the two previous budgets, namely the Rent Tax Credit. Culminating in a total spending of €6.8 billion, the Sinn Féin budget – plainly titled Investing in Housing, Health and Climate Action – may claim the title of the ‘most responsible’ alternative, although critics may disagree, preferring the terms ‘most neoliberal’ or ‘least radical’.
Although Sinn Féin opined that “Budget 2024 should have been a housing budget”, their focus also found itself on youth issues, such as immigration, climate change, and education. Indirect measures proposed to help young people include increasing the minimum wage by €1.50, only a ten cent difference from government policy, tackling the housing crisis that has resulted in young people “forced to live with their parents”, and reducing public transport fares for young people and students by 50%.
In the realm of third-level education, Sinn Féin proposed the abolition of third-level student fees, however this begins with “reduction of up to €1,000”, which has now become a staple in all leftist alternative budgets along with government’s Budget 2024. The found an equilibrium between the Social Democrats and People Before Profit when addressing the issue of the SUSI Grant, advocating for an increase of 15% in the maintenance grants (identical to the SocDems’s position) and an expansion in the eligibility for the non-adjacent rate to include 24 kilometres away from their institution (also proposed by PBP). They further established their support for postgraduate students’ access to the SUSI Grant.
In the most general sense, Sinn Féin proposed a €40 million injection of recurrent funding for higher education, specifically “to increase places in fields such as health and social care.” This shows us their understanding that a fiscal investment in education will eventually culminate in an improvement in the public sector workforce and professions essential to the Irish economy and society.
They furthermore cemented their loyalty to diversity and inclusion through the proposed introduction of a bursary to aid Irish Traveller and Roma students’ access to further and higher education, priced at €600,000 in the first year. A scheme for Irish language classes directed at post-secondary students, totalling half a million euro, moreover demonstrates a possible reason for Sinn Féin being the most popular nationalist party both north and south of the border.
The question of whether or not a leftist coalition government will come to fruition after the next general election is one we should not preoccupy ourselves with, for close reading of their alternative budgets does not solidly lay the foundation for this hope of elected revolution. It should also be discarded, any rumblings that this feat would prove to be impossible, as three of the largest leftist parties exist at different points of the political spectrum – the current coalition has proved how far a party can stray from their raison d’être in order to stay in power or relevancy.
Although notably well organised, balanced, and detailed, these alternative budgets may result in more questions than answers. Why does it now seem that a household income of €120,000 per annum is seen as the threshold to qualify for government assistance in terms of education costs and energy bills, for a figure that high would have been unthinkable just a few years ago? Why did neither Sinn Féin nor the Social Democrats avoid inditing the Green Party by name when critiquing government? This all may remain unanswered for years to come, but the final, possibly existential question is this: When two of the largest opposition parties in the State strike glaring similarities with government plans, policy, and expenditure, are we destined for a leftish government in lieu of a leftist alternative?