EAPN30: What would the old man in the Simpsons think? Poverty in Ireland and Europe, 1990-2020

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There’s an old man in the Simpsons cartoon.  He has a scaly, wrinkled face, a few wisps of scraggy hair on top, was probably a lifelong smoke and he bemoans how over the previous thirty years or so the performance of his football team degenerated.  He even has a subtitle: ‘embittered veteran’.

I was there at the start of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN).  The French had a great phrase, ‘assistance technique’ (technical assistance), an elastic formula which crossed a spectrum between note-taker, writer and advisor (I was at the writer end).  There was a three-day conference in Brussels to agree the 32-article constitution, or ‘preamble and statutes’ as they were called.  The participants really got into the European way of doing things from the start: the final constitutional discussions and textual amendments went on for much of the night, the weary delegates emerging bleary-eyed into the Belgian winter dawn the following morning.  They did a good job too, for one does not need to be an organisational nerd to appreciate the language, principles and logic of the founding document.  Indeed, some activists could do well to re-read it.

There were several remarkable features about EAPN’s formation.  First, the idea came not from us in the voluntary and community sector, but from the European Commission itself.  Personally, I found this puzzling, coming from a country whose government seemed to take more pleasure in closing down voluntary organizations.  It was only later that the ambition for a social Europe set down by Commission President Jacques Delors became apparent.  Creating the social Europe meant empowering, building up, organizing and funding civil society in the social field as a political force, as was explained by the senior Commission official present, Odile Quentin of France.  In arguing for a social Europe, it did the Commission no harm to point to the noisy voices of civil society, so it served its institutional agenda.  The Commission helped to create not only EAPN, but other networks such as for the homeless (FEANTSA). 

A second feature of the original EAPN was the influence of three countries in particular: France, Britain and Ireland.  France was obvious, because the French were the dominating force, the driver in the Commission – its design is French, its leading officials were French and the key documents were always in French (and then English).  British and Irish participation is best explained by their domestic governments of the time – Thatcher/Major in Britain, while Ireland was enduring the ironically titled Programme for National Recovery slashing of social and housing spending which became ultimately the basis of today’s homeless crisis.   Europe offered an opportunity and place to achieve social objectives through means impossible at home.  Accordingly, a rollcall of the early EAPN comprised Hughes Feltesse (France); Ray Phillips (Britain) and Bronagh Hinds and Quintin Oliver (Northern Ireland).  To borrow an architectural term, they were the chief designers.  Amazingly, Germany was stand-offish and did not participate in the original EAPN, but sneaked on board the train later so quietly as to be almost unnoticed.

Few appreciated at the time that the next decade or so would be the high tide of European social policy.  Jacques Delors persuaded Europe – well, never the British – that the way forward was through balanced economic and social progress.  An economic white paper was followed by a social one.  In a Faustian deal: the business community got liberalization (airlines, utilities, even playing field for state aid, completion of the single market); while in the social field we got directives, rights, funding programmes for social Non Governmental Organizations, the social economy, disability and anti-discrimination legislation, social capital, community development, social enterprise and so on.  Both the ‘social’ and ‘economic’ gained in equal measure.  Jacques Delors personally attended conferences on poverty, arriving on his own, no fuss, no flock of fonctionnaires round about.  He built up sufficient momentum to propel this approach through the presidency of his successor, Romano Prodi (1999-2004).  It was high tide in Ireland too, for the Rainbow government (1994-1997) presented what was one of the first national anti-poverty strategies in Europe (Sharing in progress, 1997), flanked by the Community Development Programme of 180 projects, Family Resource Centres (108) and a fourfold expansion of funding for social NGOs.  Ireland was praised across Europe as the flagship of action against poverty.

Then in 2008 it all came apart.  The warning signs had actually been there for some time.  From the time of John Major but intensified during New Labour, Britain undermined the social Europe, opposing many of the measures proposed by the Commission and becoming a big drag on the social agenda, which will not now be missed.  By the early 2000s, most European governments were centre right, reflected in the Treaty of Lisbon which disempowered the Commission, with authority shifting to the centre-right Council.  The ‘economic’ imperative was supreme once more and the historic compromise of the Delors formula quietly buried.  In Ireland, the new Fianna Fail (FF)/Green government elected in 2007 quickly decided to abolish the Combat Poverty Agency and the first moves were taken to disband the Community Development Programme. 

Although the crushed Greeks bore the full lash of Europe’s austerity régime, what happened in Ireland was self-inflicted.  Our FF/Green government set to work on the social voluntary and community sector with a vengeance.  Its funding was cut between 35% and 45% and its workforce reduced from 53,000 to 36,000, something that had not happened anywhere in Europe since 1948.  The first Community Development Projects were closed down by a Christmas eve fax and the rest followed.  There was a subliminal message that their views and activities could simply not be tolerated any more.

That funding was never restored.  Funding for voluntary and community organizations kept on falling until 2015, but has flatlined there.  Even though government funding is now 35% above 2008, key budget lines there are not (still 32% to 46% below).  The really permanent damage was done to the institutions.  The FF/Green government embarked on a wave of ‘closures’ and ‘mergers’ of state agencies, applauded as the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ (would its cheerleaders have approved the 1933 ‘bonfire of the books’?).   Almost all the closures were of social policy organizations and institutions, even at a time when the greatest economic one of them all was created (NAMA).  Top of the list was the Combat Poverty Agency.  The lease on its now-empty building was irrevocable, so we taxpayers continued to pay for it for years – but better that the now-empty building be closed, doing nothing, than that someone be doing something about poverty therein.  There is no surer way to delegitimize issues than to abolish the institutions responsible, for amnesia is sure to follow.  No one knows what happened to their priceless libraries nor their documentary records – consigned to ‘the dustbin of history’?  The real legacy is that  Ireland as a state now produces less social documentation annually than did a much smaller Northern Ireland even during the extended periods when it did not have a government.

Joe Lee, the noted Cork historian, once identified anti-intellectualism as a defining feature of this state.  In other countries – for example, India, with whom we shared an anti-colonial history – people who built up institutions are even revered.  Here, their elimination did irreparable, permanent damage to the social infrastructure of this state.  It put the government in a position that it preferred – and still prefers – to take social policy decisions without advice and without an intellectual infrastructure than with skills and knowledge.  No wonder that this state continues to underperform and has some of the worst health, social and gender indicators in Europe.  Anti-intellectual states never do as well, at least not in the areas that really matter.

Ireland’s record against poverty prior to 2008 was recently highlighted and praised.  Especially emphasized were the institutional mechanisms designed to support the original, 1997, National Anti-Poverty Strategy.  These mechanisms involved high-level responsibility in government, mezza-level coordination, local strategies, the involvement of civil society and those in poverty, conferences, research, an agency (Combat Poverty), statistics and reporting.  The presentation and discussion took place in the government’s wood-pannelled cabinet room and was attended by three government ministers, high-level public civil servants and leading civil society organizations. 

This event, in October 2018, did not take place in Dublin but in another European capital, Belgrade, where the Serbian government is designing the mechanisms to support the country’s strategy against poverty as part of its application to join the European Union.  It is hard to avoid the observation that Ireland’s historic role against poverty is now better appreciated far, far away in the mountains of the western Balkans than at home.

Thirty years after the founding of EAPN, will the tide now turn? Across Europe, there are moves to put poverty back on the political agenda, notably by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, EAPN’s spiritual home.  He is obviously making some progress, because The Guardian has already denounced him as an ‘agitator’ and ‘rabblerouser’.  Recent research into the next generation (‘NextGen’) is illuminating.  NextGen are the young people reaching adulthood.  There will be a lot of them.  This age cohort, the children of the 1980s baby-boomers (‘the pope’s children’), is now passing through secondary school and will become the youth of this decade, the 2020s.  NextGen research shows that this group is politically active – not so much by voting but by joining causes, even protesting and girls more than boys.  It is disposed to racial and gender inclusion and concerned about social issues and inequality.  Interestingly, it is disposed to working in the public sector – but it would have to be more dynamic and tolerant of their views.  A shrewd judgement.

One Dublin wit, when asked about the role of work, said that ‘half the battle is turning up’.  At both European level and at national level, EAPN has not only turned up but kept the flag flying.  Survival is in itself important, for many of our social institutions did not survive the wave of destruction a decade ago.  EAPN remains the social reminder of Europe and Ireland, of what has been done, what has been undone and what is still there to do.

This blog entry was written by Brian Harvey. Brian is an independent social researcher working in both parts of Ireland, Britain and continental Europe in social policy analysis, research, evaluation and strategic planning.  His main fields of work are poverty, social inclusion, community development, equality, human rights, European integration and the world of non-governmental organizations. He was founder and President of FEANTSA, the European Association of National Organizations Working with the Homeless.

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