In a TV debate with Joan Burton recently, the former leader of the Irish Labour Party made a point that is of interest in terms of how politics is conducted in Ireland, and elsewhere, today. The debate was about the direction of Irish politics and where a real alternative to address inequality and deprivation might emerge from. But that is for another day. For now, what interests me about this particular debate is something Ms. Burton said towards the end of it.
I had set out some of the issues that I think need to be addressed to build an alternative. I had also set out my view of the way in which Fine Gael and Fianna Fail governments, throughout our history as an independent state, have looked after the few at the expense of the many. While agreeing on the importance of the issues I set out, Ms. Burton bemoaned the fact that I thought the Labour Party could not deliver this alternative. In fact she, quite legitimately, listed a range of social reforms that the Labour Party have supported going back decades. She spoke about divorce, contraception, the equality referendum and even Repeal, and held them up as issues that the Labour Party have gotten behind as evidence of that party’s worth and usefulness. It would be churlish to debate the extent to which this one party played a role in these changes. That would be a largely subjective analysis anyway. Whatever about that, I readily acknowledge that these issues hold within them evidence of real progress on what I call ‘social’ issues. Changes in these areas, and public support for those changes, is social liberalism in action.
Just how significant progress on these issues is was demonstrated to me at a recent event in Ballymun in which I participated. This was a ‘cross community’ event with representatives of communities in Dublin and of Northern Ireland’s unionist community. It was striking to note how the new right to gay marriage here, and even having a referendum on repeal of the 8th Amendment, is very far ahead of any similar legislative or constitutional changes in the North around LBGTQ rights, abortion rights and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Yes, despite decades of often repressive and even abusive social conservatism here, we are indeed moving forward and seeing real progress in some of these areas and potential progress in others. This is positive stuff.
But what about change in our economic direction? It is clear that changes in the area of personal rights like these are absolutely no indicator of fundamental change in how society is structured economically, and in whose interests it is so structured. In that respect, not only are we not making progress, but we are going backwards at considerable speed. While social liberalism has seen slow but steady progress over the last number of decades here, economic conservatism ‘rules ok’!