Scales showing inequality

Jun 13, 2020 | Ireland | 0 comments

The Republic of Two-Tiered Freedom

Scales showing inequality
John Hunter

Written by Stephen Moynihan

In International, Opinion

Ireland is a free society – but people are still afforded different levels of freedom based on their reliance on the state or lack thereof. This article looks at two aspects which are suggestive of this.

7min Read

John Hunter Mobile

Written by Stephen Moynihan

In International, Opinion

7min Read

Ireland is a free society – but people are still afforded different levels of freedom based on their reliance on the state or lack thereof. This article looks at two aspects which are suggestive of this.

By nearly any measure Ireland is a free society. Broadly speaking, we have free and fair elections, freedom of speech, a free press, freedom of expression, a strong rule of law and relatively robust anti-discrimination legislation. For the year of 2019 the Freedom in the World Report granted Ireland a score of 97/100, placing us in joint 4th position out of the 210 countries and territories which make up the report.

We should be proud of Ireland’s achievements in this regard, but it does not mean that we can afford to become complacent and take our freedom as a given. There are still issues to be dealt with, such as “consultation with members of the Romany minority, Travellers, and persons with disabilities” before policy implementation, as the Freedom in the World Report stated. The report also states that social stigma against LGBT people is an issue, and recent reports in Irish newspapers would suggest that racism is still a major problem in Ireland.

One issue which gets relatively little attention is Ireland’s treatment of those reliant on social welfare – whether in work or not – who have seen their civil liberties threatened in recent times. Two clear examples of this are the introduction of the Public Services Card and the suggestion of a Fine Gael Councillor recently that those attending Black Lives Matter protests should have their Pandemic Unemployment Payment cut.

The Public Service Card has been criticised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and the Data Protection Commissioner. Issues have been raised with the legal basis in necessitating its use for services outside the remit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the lack of transparency regarding storage of data, and the length of time that this data is stored for – although the department is contesting this. Most importantly, however, the card’s initial rollout to economically vulnerable social welfare recipients has led to the creation of a two-tier standard of civil liberties amongst the Irish population.

The elderly, the unemployed, people with disabilities, carers and many others who receive social welfare payments are coerced into having their private information stored on a national database under the threat of a discontinuation of payments should they refuse. The right to privacy of many people – primarily the poor – has therefore been eroded. Therefore, it cannot be said that Ireland offers the same level of civil liberties to its poor as its ‘better off’ – the stigma and the unequal treatment they face are being further exacerbated by this policy.

Sample Public Services Card

The recent suggestion by David McManus, Fine Gael Councillor for Dublin South, is further evidence of the unequal treatment experienced by those reliant on the State. In an interview with Dublin Talks about the recent Black Lives Matter protests he stated his view that “if people are going to break the restrictions, if these protesters are not going to show solidarity with Irish society, then why should we as a society show solidarity with them via the €350 payment?”.

The suggestion of such a policy is reckless. Similar to the Public Services Card issue, it targets those who are vulnerable and directly threatens their economic wellbeing, disincentivising the breaking of public health guidelines is possible without resorting to this extreme measure. By choosing to target protestors’ social welfare payments, McManus suggests that the State should be the arbiters of acceptable standards of behaviour for those receiving welfare payments, standards which would not extend to those who are better off – a similar notion to the two-tiers of civil liberties mentioned in the previous paragraph. While a councillor thankfully does not have the power to enact such a policy, it is suggestive of a notion held by some elected representatives that the poor do not deserve equal treatment.

These two issues raise the question of whether those on lower incomes or reliant on the State are afforded equal freedom to those ‘better off’ in Irish society. The middle class who are independent of direct economic assistance from the State can move forward with little fear of the State intruding on their person, but the same cannot be said for the poor.

Those reliant on social welfare in its current form are not afforded a sense of “republican freedom” – a sense that their lives could be subjected to domination by the State. The permanent holding of data may raise fears amongst those who have Public Services Cards – primarily the poor – that their privacy can be intruded upon. The suggestion that payments may be cut for “bad” behaviour also hampers their sense of republican freedom. It is worth noting that for republican freedom to be lost it is not necessary that these concerns actually come to fruition, it is their threat or possibility that is of relevance. It is republican freedom that leads so many to be enthusiastic proponents of Unconditional Basic Income – if everyone is entitled to a level of income which would allow them to support themselves regardless of any other factors, then everyone gains a sense of republican freedom, at least economically. But that debate is for another day.

The Bottom Line:

The State and elected representatives need to tread carefully when considering issues which asymmetrically impact people based on their economic status. People should not be subjected to privacy concerns, different behavioural standards or stigma based on their income or socioeconomic background. The State has a duty to treat all citizens fairly and equitably – the economically independent are no more deserving of freedom than those who are ‘worse off’. More needs to be done to ensure that this bears out in reality.

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