Irish Times

Monday, February 26, 2001

Human rights will lead to a more just society

The left claims a monopoly on social justice, asserts Progressive Democrat leader Mary Harney, who argues that her party is in reality the true champion of social democracy

Mary Harney,
Irish Times

At a time when people allege that all political parties are the same, the public rightly asks political leaders: "What do you really stand for? What are you doing to bring about a better society?"

To answer, some politicians are now falling over themselves claiming to be social democrats. They seem to think that only if you call yourself a social democrat can you claim to be on the side of social justice. In the Progressive Democrats, we reject the attempt by the left to claim exclusive rights to social justice. We have a clear vision of what fairness and justice mean.

Our party is within the European democratic, liberal political tradition. We stand for freedom as essential to a civilised, just and peaceful society. We stand for equality of opportunity and merit.

We believe in solidarity, particularly with vulnerable people. Our principles are grounded in human rights and based on the rule of law. We have a clear view of the role of government. It must promote these freedoms and the dignity of people and communities.

This means a low government burden on all forms of enterprise and initiative. It means highly accountable public institutions, close to the people, and an efficient, effective public service.

The Government must serve the public interest by being tough on anti-competitive, anti-consumer practices. Our party has held to these principles since our foundation. We know they serve the good of society. They help us to confront new challenges and to sort out the wheat from the chaff in policy proposals. Most of all, they inspire us to address the real needs we see in Ireland today. They are a matter of justice.

The left-wing focus on social justice as redistribution of resources by the State misses a wider concept of justice. There is really one justice, not exclusive compartments called civil justice, criminal justice, social justice or economic justice.

Employment is a matter of justice. Ninety thousand people who had no job in April 1997 have jobs now. That's more than the entire population of Limerick. Each one tells a story of justice delivered, a story of renewed dignity, freedom and fairness.

The tremendous increase in employment has done more to alleviate poverty than anything any government welfare programme has done or could ever do. Each personal story of leaving poverty behind is also a story of justice delivered. Our economic policies are working for justice.

We have never wanted growth for growth's sake or tax cuts for tax cuts' sake. We want what they deliver, a more just society, with a higher standard of living and better quality of life for all people.

We all know that growth poses challenges too, but quieter times on the roads were also times when there were no new jobs and a lot of hardship. Instead of people travelling to work each day, they were forced to travel abroad. There was no justice or fairness in the policies that caused that.

Many emigrants have now returned. It is profoundly good that Irish people can live their lives, if they choose, near their families and relatives, close to their place of birth, handing on their culture and values, keeping their roots.

I know of older people who thought they would never see their grown-up children live near them. Haven't we made a great advance for a just society when this pain has been reversed for so many families?

We still have a good way to go to help all people out of poverty and dependency, to deliver the quality health and education every one should have, and to correct past policy failures. Our job for the future is to implement policies which will sustain prosperity in strong communities, in a competitive economy, trading in globalised markets.

By the same token, it would be a great injustice to implement policies which would cost jobs and drive up emigration again. And that's where the claim of left-wing parties to be the champions of social justice is weakest of all.

Contrary to left-wing analysis, achieving a just society is about much more than one particular pattern of income distribution or making the well-off pay a lot of tax. For that matter, our income tax system already asks the better off to pay more tax. A single person earning £10,000 pays an average tax rate of 5 per cent, while a person earning £40,000 pays an average tax rate of 32 per cent.

Over half of all income tax came from 12 per cent of taxpayers in 1998. That's already a lot of redistribution of income.

If our tax cuts were so unjust, why don't our opponents promise to raise taxes? For them it is always unjust if we lower the top rate of tax, but never so unjust that they'd reverse it. What sort of conviction is that?

Justice and fairness also have to be delivered for the many people with ordinary incomes, who don't need redistribution and who aren't in poverty.

The Progressive Democrats favour competition not just because it delivers lower prices to consumers but because it achieves a more just, fair and free balance of economic power in society. We support all forms of enterprise, individual, business, social and community enterprise. The Government's role for enterprise and initiative is to facilitate, not to control, to encourage, not stifle, to learn, not lecture.

In regard to public services, we ask, are they serving the interests of the public? Do they deliver quality services to all people who need them, and on time? How can government improve the delivery of health, education and other services consistent with individual freedom?

We believe there is more to fairness and freedom in health than the allocation of resources. The hepatitis C tribunal, the Lindsay tribunal, the nursing homes scandal are matters of justice denied and justice eventually being delivered. They have shown deficiencies in how just and fair our public administration has been. We are determined to get full, fair and patient-centred reform of our health services.

Our principles based on universal human rights underpin our decision to increase overseas aid and our commitment to European Union enlargement and to free and fair trade. Ireland's human rights performance will be clear, for example, in how fairly we treat asylum-seekers and refugees.

Our party has an uncompromising insistence on respect for the dignity of each individual. Asylum-seekers deserve a fair and speedy adjudication of their case in line with international best practice. To all these principles must be added the ability to get things done. In law, they say justice delayed is justice denied. Promoting justice is not a matter of sounding good in policy papers, it is about effectiveness in government.

We cede to no one in our claim and our resolve to deliver justice, prosperity and fairness for all. Our vision of justice is broader than that proclaimed by the left. As republicans within in a great European political tradition, we can deliver the justice, prosperity and freedom that Irish people want.

Mary Harney is also the Tánaiste

© 2001