The Budget for 2005, announced in December 2004 by Finance Minister Brian Cowen, amounted to an admission by the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats government that their budgets since 1997 had failed the fairness test. Very belatedly some measures were taken to address inequality but we should be much further ahead. The level of inequality and consistent poverty today is testament to the fundamentally flawed approach of the FF/PD Coalition over their eight years in office.
The attempt by the Government now to be seen to address inequality is due in no small measure to the growing political strength of Sinn Féin.
In the wake of Sinn Féin electoral advances in the 2004 local government and EU Parliament elections, the Taoiseach discovered he was a socialist.
In 2005 Fianna Fail has rediscovered that its sub-title is ‘the Republican Party’. Even the PDs now want to be called republicans. And the State commemoration of the 1916 Rising is to be revived.
In the closing months of the current Dail, as a General Election approaches in 2006 or early 2007, we believe this pattern will continue.
For Sinn Féin the real test is not rhetoric but the putting into effect of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It means “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” in practice.
But the FF/PD government has failed that test.
Published in 2005, the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions shows that one in seven children in the 26 Counties - almost 150,000 - are living in consistent poverty. They suffer economic hardship on a weekly basis that excludes them from the quality of life and the opportunities for their future enjoyed by a majority of children.
A further significant minority of 242,000 children - some 23.9% of young people in the State - are at risk of poverty (otherwise known as relative income poverty). They live in households which have less than 60% of the State-wide median income.
The National Anti-Poverty Strategy set the year 2007 as the target date for consistent child poverty to be reduced to below 2% and eliminated altogether if possible. Clearly, with some 14% of children in consistent poverty, the target is far from being reached in 2007.
This confirms that despite the unprecedented prosperity in the Irish economy, it is one of the most inequitable in the developed world.
In the United Nations Human Development Index for 2005 this State comes third last in a league of 18 OECD countries in terms of poverty. Only the United States and Italy, among the developed countries, have worse levels of poverty and inequality. (It should be noted that the ‘United Kingdom’ is fourth from the bottom in this league and that included in its figures are the Six Counties where child poverty levels are worse than in the 26 Counties, adding to the total of avoidable hardship for children in Ireland).
This level of poverty is inexcusable given the affluent Irish economy of the 21st century. Record budget surpluses have been achieved year after year, yet the opportunity to move towards an Ireland of Equals has been squandered.
There is sufficient wealth in our society to ensure that, at the very least, no child should want for any of the basics of life and all should be able to look forward to a full and rewarding future. The lack of vision, the incompetence and the conservatism of successive governments in this State have robbed generations of children of their birthright.
Reversing all of this will mean a change in policy, a shift in emphasis towards social need and equality. As we have repeatedly pointed out, this will include moving away from the outdated model of annual budgeting and the ‘Budget Day’ ritual and towards multi-annual budgeting based on medium to long-term planning. It will require participatory democracy with the people and the Oireachtas having a real say in policy.
The priorities that Sinn Féin presents for Budget 2006 are designed to tackle immediate needs and the most extreme inequalities. A much more comprehensive approach will be required to move towards an Ireland of Equals. In this Budget we again urge prioritization of those most in need - the children of the nation.
SUMMARY OF SINN Féin PROPOSALS
- Major early childhood care and education programme, including
Universal pre-school session of 3.5 hours per day, five days a week for all children in year before they go to school
Increase maternity leave to 26 weeks paid, 26 weeks unpaid
Increase revenue for Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme
Improved standards and inspection of childcare facilities and national pay scale for childcare workers
- Increase Child Benefit to O155.92 per month for first and second child and O192.85 for third and subsequent children.
- Extend medical card cover to all under 18.
- Range of measures to address educational disadvantage and ensure equality of access
- Funding and strategy to help prevent anti-social behaviour by young people.
- Tax reform including abolition of speculator-friendly/property-based tax breaks.