An Ireland Worth Working for - towards a new democratic programme

Posted on April 14, 2019 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

Later today, Monday 15th April, the Nevin Economic Research Institute along with New Island Books will launch An Ireland Worth Working For: Towards a new democratic programme.

This book is about the future of Ireland – its economy and society and its people. It sets out a vision for the whole of Ireland that goes beyond sectarian or political agendas. What we need is a credible and carefully worked out strategy to move towards a shared vision, a strategy currently lacking in the market for ideas and contest of programmes. Referring to different models of economic, social and political development in the recent past or abroad may be helpful but what worked then or elsewhere may not work so well now or here. We do not need a blueprint for the future because we do not know what events and surprises await us. What we do need a set of pointers to guide the direction of policy, action and public conversation.

One hundred years ago this year, a brave new Ireland was imagined by men and women in a gathering of elected representatives in what was the first meeting of the first Dáil or parliament on 21 January 1919. The ‘Democratic Programme’ was a radical document founded on the principles of equality, justice and self-determination. Even in its edited and much less radical version, the Programme contained many important ideas and aspirations which, if they had been acted on, would have produced a very different Ireland to the one that we know today. Failure to implement these ideas reinforced an unequal society where fundamental human rights were not honoured and where private property and class interest prevailed over the common good.

In the recent past, the inherent weaknesses in native Irish capitalism have been exposed. We have emerged from a bruising experience of recession, banking collapse and reduced living standards. While many have benefited from a recovery in employment and wages, others remain mired in poverty and precarious work.

With Brexit, all bets are off when it comes to the future of economic and political relationships within and between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 is under threat. The all-island economy – fragile as it has been – is precarious, with Northern Ireland particularly vulnerable. Austerity has not gone away and the slow erosion of its manufacturing base has chipped away at community morale.

We must find an ‘Irish way’ that breaks free of the shackles of overdependence on foreign capital and no longer models itself on the neo-liberal approach which has seen an erosion in equality, public service and labour rights.  In particular, the model of social and economic development in Northern Ireland is not sufficient to raise standards of living, redistribute wealth and heal the wounds of sectarian conflict over many generations. We need a new departure.

We must look forward in decades and not just a few years to the next political event or election. Let us cast the net out to the middle of the century: only 30 years away, short enough to permit us to mark out a realistic strategy and vision within a manageable time scale roughly equivalent to a generation and long enough to allow for the necessary sea change in political and institutional culture.

Although this book focuses on social and economic change within Ireland, we should not forget the importance of solidarity at a global level. Climate change, poverty, migration and human rights concern everyone around the world. Ireland is in the top group of countries in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, giving us a moral duty to show leadership and initiative in promoting human and labour rights, fair trade, investment and overseas aid.

We need to change the language and thinking around ‘economic growth’. What matters is sustainable human development across a range of domains encompassing nutrition, health, education and work. Growth, captured in a narrow statistical concept such as GDP, must become a secondary public policy goal subservient to other measures that reflect the quality of economic activity. In the first, discarded draft of the Democratic Programme, Johnson wrote: ‘The Irish Republic shall always count its wealth and prosperity by the measure of health and happiness of its citizens.’ If only this sentence has been left in! And if only social policy in the following decades put as much emphasis on promoting and measuring ‘health and happiness’ as on GDP!

The launch takes place at 5.30pm this evening in Liberty Hall, SIPTU, Dublin 1.

Registration is advised at:

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