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Michael D Higgins’ last word on social policy

Shortly before the Dail was dissolved, retiring deputy Michael D Higgins (Lab, Galway W) took the opportunity of the Finance Bill to make some broad, valedictory comments on the kind of social policy that should inform us in the future (Dail Eireann, Debates, 25th January 2011, 442-446).  As a country, he said, we had never developed a sense of equality the way the French had, for instead we had developed an authoritarian administrative system that could not connect to the vulnerability, the struggle and the agony of ordinary people and we had an excluded underclass.  We paid a high price for the anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism of Irish culture: we had to go back and find a real republic built on citizenship.  He rejected as outrageous the idea of a republic built on the radical individualism epitomized in the ugly statement of Michael McDowell that inequality was needed for the stability of the society, which ranked with mad Margaret Thatcher’s view that there was no such thing as society.  We should have a society with a floor of citizenship below which people would not be allowed to fall, with equal education and decent housing.  He continued:

‘People wonder why poverty had to reproduce itself in the same family from one generation or from one area to another and wonder why there is a difference between the quality of schools in one place and the quality of those in another.  God did not make it like that.  Nature did not make it like that.  The people in the so-called Irish Republic made it like that.’

We had to reject radical individualism, its privileged view of professions and its side-of-the-mouth politics of benefit and privilege and create a radical inclusive republic placed in a social Europe which accepted the inter-dependency of people rather than the aspirations of the élite property-owning classes.  He drew attention to the achievements of equality legislation and the understanding of political science that political power was useless without administrative power:

‘It was only when the equality legislation was followed through with the Equality Authority and the Combat Poverty Agency that it was possible to administer the benefit that had been won politically.  That is the meaning of administrative power and why we lost the Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Agency to the right and had all the cuts.  A real republic has yet to be built in this state’.