The appearance of East Galway Fianna Fáil TD and Spokesperson for Children and Youth Affairs Anne Rabbitte on this morning’s Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra [23rd May 2020] has been met with sharp criticism and disappointment by many. Her comments have damaged the sense of solidarity that was evident in Irish society as a result of COVID-19, and could lead to greater division going forward.

Asked about when she foresees the COVID Pandemic Unemployment Payment being tapered off, she specifically focused on the 200,000 people who are, and I use her words, “a hell of a lot better off” on the Pandemic Payment and said that measures to reduce these workers’ income “needs to happen sooner rather than later”. No mention was made of the general macroeconomic situation – her comments were targeted. These comments, specifically Rabbitte’s decision to focus on low-income workers who are financially better off on the PUP scheme, represents the very worst of the centre of Irish politics and its propensity to dismiss the concerns of the working and lower-middle class.

I am hesitant to criticise any Teachta Dála on a personal level, but these comments provide evidence of a gaping disconnect between some members of a comfortable political class and reality for much of the population. Her comments ignore the fact that many of these workers will become long-term unemployed through no fault of their own following this pandemic and will therefore suffer the social issues that go with that – including the indignity that many unemployed feel in a market economy that values one’s societal contribution largely on economics alone. These people are not revelling in the fact that they are getting an extra €50 or so each week, especially as the end of their “mortgage holidays” get closer and closer. Perhaps her comments could be excused were they initiated by a difficult interviewer, but there was no leading question. It was a calculated choice to target the most vulnerable, lowest paid members of society – “punching down”, as many in the Twittersphere have described it. She is at the very best uninformed, and at the very worst contemptuous, of those on low incomes.

Her remarks are in sharp contrast to the “Ireland for All” that Fianna Fáíl had advocated for in the recent general election, which suggested that they had abandoned their commitment to centre or centre-right politics and were about to at least partially embrace social democracy. A party that truly sought an “Ireland for All” wouldn’t seek to blame the lowest paid members of society for the condition of the State’s finance, as Ms. Rabbitte did here implicitly, if not explicitly. The real scandal, for a party that spreads such egalitarian sentiments, should be that 200,000 workers were earning below €350 a week under the previous status quo, not that they are currently financially better off on social welfare. The presentation of the €350 figure as exorbitant is especially pernicious when one considers that it only represents 70% of the average wage in the retail, hospitality and construction sectors, as Leo Varadkar stated in Thursday’s episode of Breakfast on Newstalk – the fact is that it is simply not enough for many workers.

My issue is not with the economics of the situation per se – questioning the structure of Ireland’s economy is fair, and indeed healthy, but Ms. Rabbitte’s comments were unhelpful. What she, at least hopefully, failed to realise when making these comments is that semiotics matter. When a politician from a major political party makes the decision to “punch down” in the way she did, it’s a signal to other members of society that it is okay to do this. For all Fianna Fáil’s talk of Sinn Féin’s propensity for dividing society, Ms. Rabbitte’s comments are likely to do just as much if not more. It’s no coincidence that tweets are now going viral which relish the idea that recipients of PUP will soon be back on their low incomes or on standard social welfare payments.

Ms. Rabbitte has hastened the decline of Irish society’s sense of egalitarianism and community that was so welcome, and so necessary, as we faced into the COVID-19 pandemic. She has signalled that business as usual can return for many of the so-called “squeezed middle” and upper class who look down in contempt at those reliant on state aid or on low incomes. Finally, her comments suggest that the trend of Ireland’s centre parties abandoning the most vulnerable when times get tough is set to continue.

Oh well, the solidarity was nice while it lasted.