Those who work hardest in society often paid least – Social Justice Ireland chief

Fr Sean Healy and Sr Brigid Reynolds of Social Justice Ireland. Photo: Tom Burke

Sarah Mac Donald

After half a century of helping people in dire need, Fr Sean Healy is retiring from Social Justice Ireland at a time when he fears “thousands of people are at risk of homelessness”.

The Government has decided to end the eviction ban while the housing crisis has not been addressed, according to Fr Healy, who co-founded the organisation with Sr Brigid Reynolds.

He believes the termination of the eviction ban will “undoubtedly” cause more people to become homeless in the face of “a worsening housing crisis”.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Fr Healy said the “eviction ban in reality was not a ban, but a deferment, or a moratorium.”

Landlords retained all the rights they had before its introduction, he says, “they were just delayed a little”.

He highlights how more than one million of those in rental accommodation in Ireland are having some difficulty in making ends meet, and almost 160,000 are experiencing “great difficulty”.

Describing the country’s poverty levels as “a disgrace”, he points out that tenants in 2020 who could not pay rent due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic were protected. But now tenants are not being protected amid the financial hardship of a cost-of-living crisis.

Fr Healy, who is a member of the Society of African Missions, is to retire later this year from Social Justice Ireland but he is sure to continue his campaigning work.

One of his main objectives is for every man, woman and child to have enough income to live life with dignity.

He has “no doubt whatsoever that poverty could be dramatically reduced, possibly even eliminated” – but that would require political will to do so, and that will “doesn’t exist”.

Ireland has pledged to eliminate poverty by 2030 under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but “we’re a long, long way away from that.

“At the moment, we have 680,000 people in poverty. That is not just wrong, it is a disgrace in a country with ­Ireland’s level of income.

“We don’t need to have that situation and by any standards, we shouldn’t have that situation.”

Acknowledging that Ireland has “a very successful economy” with very high levels of employment, he argues that “too much of it is low-paid employment”.

For decades, Social Justice Ireland and its predecessor, the Cori Justice Commission, which Fr Healy ran with Sr Brigid, has argued for a different income distribution model.

“What we are seeing is what we predicted,” he said. “There is a splitting apart with a huge number of people on one side doing very well.

"They are on the cutting edge of the digital world, AI and all those areas that would be identified with Silicon Docks.

"On the other side, there are more and more people who find themselves working extremely long hours for minimum wages.

“They are among the working poor. There are over 100,000 people in Ireland with a job living in poverty – that shouldn’t be the case.”

His passion for justice and his advocacy for the common good were honed during his time as a missionary in Africa. After ordination, the Cork native spent 10 years in Kaduna from 1970.

Today, the city in north-west Nigeria is often subject to ethnic, political and religious violence; and bears the scars of the terror campaign of Islamist group, Boko Haram.

While working as a missionary there in the 1970s, Fr Healy came to realise that “much of what was happening in Africa was actually dictated elsewhere” in transnational corporations.

His understanding of mission changed. “It was difficult to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in a situation where huge numbers of people were living in poverty.”

Armed with a doctorate from Fordham University in the US, he set about challenging unjust structures and poverty back in Ireland.

Now 77 years old, he has garnered respect from all sides of the political divide for his trenchant criticisms and willingness to hold governments to account over economically unjust policies.

Bluff and spin get short-shrift, as he drills down into the figures and calls out inaccuracies and misguided policies.

In Fr Healy’s opinion, a prime example of societal failures is the treatment of carers.

“There’s a very large number of people who are carers in our society – those people have inadequate income streams.

“Isn’t there something profoundly wrong with a caring system that isn’t really supported by the State, or the support that is there is half-baked and really not fit for purpose?”

“As a society, we should be caring for everybody, and part of that is paying carers a basic income.

“If carers are not entitled to a basic income for some reason, show me how you are going to ensure that every single one of them has a decent standard of living and is able to provide for the basics they require.

“It is not a high bar – providing the basics isn’t making millionaires out of them or sending them on three holidays a year.”

His solution would be to provide a basic income system – an idea he has advocated since the 1980s.

He and the team of economists in Social Justice Ireland have designed a number of ways the State could do this.

“We have shown how it can be set up and we have shown how it can be funded,” he states, batting away the “false” arguments of naysayers.

“You get a certain amount of dismissal of basic income by people who have never actually looked at it or studied it in any great detail,” he said – people who resort to “half-baked studies”.

The proposal for a universal basic income has, however, gained greater traction since the pandemic as sectors such as the arts were put on ice.

The Basic Income for the Arts (BIA) pilot scheme, which supports 2,000 artists and creative arts workers with a payment of €325 a week, will run until 2025.

He welcomes the scheme and believes that the world of work is likely to change rapidly as AI affects traditional roles.

“The income distribution system we have, which is payment for jobs, will in time be seen as past its sell-by date.”