On May 24th 2023, Fr Peter McVerry gave the opening address to the INOU’s first in-person Annual Delegate Conference since 2019, and with his kind permission the speech is published in this e-bulletin article.
A destructive virus has corrupted our economy and has become widely entrenched in our culture and mind-sets. It has even infiltrated into our churches and their spirituality. It escaped during the Thatcher/Regan time in office. It is called “self-protective individualism”. This virus leads us to believe that our security and happiness depends on possessing more and more, and has made us very judgemental.
“Self-protective individualism” promotes the idea that I, and I alone, am responsible for my future. It tells us that we are all self-interested actors who compete against each other for scarce resources. It tries to persuade us that the ideal person is the one who is independent, who can stand on their own two feet, who is responsible for their own future without having to rely on anyone or anything else. Self-sufficiency is the ideal state; dependency is seen as a weakness, a vulnerability which we have to overcome, if we are to be truly secure.
We make our own future by striving to have enough available for future emergencies, a “rainy day fund”. And so, our independence and security have come to depend on what we possess. The only true security we can rely on is financial security. Of course we all want enough. But “enough” is never enough! There is no ceiling. “Enough” is a meaningless term. We keep trying to accumulate more and more, in the belief that the more we accumulate, the more independent and secure we will become. To seek to accumulate more and more is considered to be just common-sense, the responsible thing to do, we owe it to our families.
A form of selfishness – everyone for themselves – has mutated into a virtue. The common good has become secondary to capital accumulation. A person’s right to make money has become prioritised over the needs of the larger community. Money has become the supreme value that all other values are measured by. Money is the new God – in money I trust! Some will think that what I am saying is pure nonsense – and maybe it is! But maybe this virus has been so successful that it has so deeply entered into our mindsets that it is impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative. This is perhaps the reason why Irish people did not march, protest or riot in any significant way at the austerity imposed in the years after the end of the Celtic Tiger. People, for the most part, accepted austerity because they believed that there was no alternative.
As a nation, our quality of life is increasingly measured in terms of economic markets and economic competition. We are persuaded that the problems that exist, poverty, homelessness, inadequate public health care, can only be solved by increased economic activity, on the obvious grounds that we cannot spend what we do not have. However, in 1975 when Ireland had much less, we built 8,900 social houses; when we had a recession in the 1980s, we still built 6,500 social houses; and, in 2015, when we were much wealthier, we built 75 social houses. In poor Ireland of the 1970s there were about 1,000 homeless people; in the much wealthier Ireland of 2023, there were almost 12,000 registered homeless people but at least another 12,000 who were homeless but not registered.
The problem was never poverty, but the pursuit of wealth today in a way that destroys community, turns basic human needs like housing and food into commodities, abandons the common good to private interests, favours owners over workers, and distorts the human person into a marketable product.
This virus makes us very judgemental. Those who are financially secure are judged to have been successful and they, rightly, enjoy the rewards of their hard work and self-sacrifice. They mostly live in nice houses in nice areas and have a secure, comfortable lifestyle. They have proved themselves to be responsible and can be trusted.
But there is a stigma attached to being poor or unemployed. They are often seen as people who have failed, for one reason or another. They mostly live in poor housing, in deprived areas with few resources and they struggle to make ends meet. This creates an ideology of meritocracy, those who have proved they are capable and trustworthy, and those who have proved that they aren’t. The challenges faced in the 1980s as a result of rising inequality, unemployment, drugs and poor local authority estate management were exploited to develop a stigmatising discourse that all social and public housing was a ‘failure’. Social housing came to be seen as a form of housing for a lower class of citizen. One of the biggest obstacles to solving the housing crisis today is the objection by local communities to any housing – particularly social or affordable housing – in their neighbourhood.
If you are unemployed, the default position in the Department of Social Protection – or as I prefer to call it, the Department of Social Rejection – is that you may be trying to fiddle the system. You have to jump through hoops to prove that you are not defrauding the system. This not a criticism of the staff, but of the system ticking boxes. Endless forms, bank statements are required. If a jilted ex-girlfriend rings the welfare to say you are working, your payment will be suspended until an investigation is completed, which may take weeks, during which time you will not be paid. People who have retired at 65, but have to sign on for Jobseeker’s Benefit for a year before they become eligible for the pension at 66, talk about how demeaning the experience is.
Those who are unemployed contribute just as much to our economic development as those who are working. If there were no unemployed, no pool of potential workers to draw on when needed, wages would skyrocket, our competitiveness would be seriously damaged and our economy would go into recession. Our economy needs people to be unemployed but our society judges them to be lazy, and happy to scrounge off the state. The jobseekers payment for the Under 25s was reduced – I think by a Labour Minister - to €100 in 2014 on the grounds it would encourage them to get up off the couch and look for work. It was certainly a Labour Government minister who decided that single parents should sign on for Jobseekers Assistance when their children reached the age of 7, as if to say that they should not be paid for doing nothing, implying that raising your children was doing nothing.
Very few people want to be unemployed, unless the alternative, which it often is, is a low-wage, repetitious, soul-destroying job. Communism imploded because it denied people their dignity, considering people to be mere cogs in an economic machine. Capitalism has the same fault line, considering people to be of value only when they are contributing to the creation of wealth by being employed, or consumers whose money can be extracted from them.
There is a vaccine to this virus. It will not protect us from the virus as it has already infected us all but it will mitigate the worst effects of it. It is called solidarity. The Catholic Church in Ireland, as elsewhere, is a largely discredited institution. However, I believe that the values of the Gospel can challenge the unexamined, repetitious, conventional wisdom put out by our leaders. At the core of the Gospel is this value of solidarity. Half the parables in the Gospels are about the obscenity of accumulating wealth in the midst of poverty. The story of the farmer who had a bumper harvest, but found that his barns were not big enough to store all the food, decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones, so that he could live for many years and eat, drink and make merry. What many would consider a very prudent farmer, Jesus calls a fool for not using his wealth to help those around him who were poor and hungry. When the workers congregated in the market place, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work – as workers on the docks used to have to do in Ireland - the vineyard owner arrived at 9am and agreed with the workers for a wage of one denarius – enough to feed his family for the day. He came again at midday to hire more workers, again early afternoon and again one hour before work was due to finish. When they came to get paid, everyone got one denarius. The workers who started work at 9am complained – the trade unions would have told them to go on strike! – but Jesus praises the vineyard owner for wanting to make sure all his workers could feed their families.
Jesus during his life on earth spent most of his time amongst the poor; the unwanted and marginalised were at the centre of his life and he sacrificed his life for us. And, then, at the Last Supper he said: “Do this – do the same – in memory of me”.
Solidarity finds concrete expression in service, in the care of others. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.
In Ireland, as in many other countries, politicians have perfected the art of ignoring the poor. But suffering is the megaphone to arouse a deaf world. A woman, due to be evicted on the same day that she was in hospital having a baby. A person facing eviction into homelessness who goes for dialysis three times a week. The heart-breaking stories of people being evicted from their private rented accommodation, elderly people, or people with disabilities or families with children and nowhere to go, because the landlord wants to sell the house now that house prices are reaching their peak, or because they want new tenants paying a higher rent, can wake us up to the worship of money.
Several years ago, on the Joe Duffy programme, two women who were diagnosed with the same cancer at the same time, were interviewed. One told how she had private insurance, was treated straight away and the prognosis was very good; the other had a medical card, was put on a waiting list, and when she began treatment was told that her cancer had spread and she now had only several months to live.
The island of saints and scholars has become a land of buyers and sellers. When Simon Coveney, the then Minister for Housing, introduced a cap on rent increases, he wanted the increase to be limited to the rate of inflation, which was then hovering around zero. But the big foreign institutional investments funds had several meetings with him and told him that if he wanted them to continue investing in Ireland, 4% as the minimum cap they would accept. So 4% it was. The invisible dictatorship of hidden interests have gained control over both resources and the possibility of thinking.
We praise those charities who are helping the poor. Food kitchens, in this, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, should be considered an obscenity, but instead have become normalised and are generously supported by the public, who should in fact be outraged. To adapt a quotation from a South American Archbishop: when Br. Kevin feeds the poor, he is considered a saint; when he asks why are they poor, he is considered a left-wing troublesome cleric. The St. Vincent de Paul are supporting record numbers of households in poverty in a country awash with money. But where is the outcry? When the number of homeless people passed 5,000 – many years age now- there was outrage, it was reported on the front pages of the media and on every news programme. But when the number passed 10,000, there was barely a whimper, except from charities working with homeless people, who were then disparagingly characterised by some in positions of authority as the “homeless industry”.
Is Ireland a failing society? No, if you consider that we have full employment, record tax receipts, record household savings and the fastest growing economy in the EU. But I ask, why would any young person, who has a qualification, stay in Ireland? They will never own their own home, will be paying outrageous rents for the rest of their lives for insecure accommodation, they will have one of the highest costs of living in the EU, when they can go to Dubai, or Australia, or Canada and enjoy a much better work/life experience. The social contract has been broken. Ireland told its young people that if you stay in school, study hard, get a third-level qualification, and become a productive member of Irish society, then Irish society would look after you. Today, they know they were lied to. Fifty years ago, it was our young unemployed people emigrating, mostly to Britain, to find work and a better life; today is it our young skilled people who are emigrating to find a better life than Ireland can offer. Ireland, in its relentless pursuit of money, has failed our young people.