April 29, 2013 7:23 pm

Ireland’s travellers bear brunt of austerity

Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic group is bearing the brunt of public spending cuts imposed under the country’s international bailout, according to a report published in Dublin on Monday as debate rages over whether it is time to ease up on austerity.

Irish travellers, a 30,000-strong ethnic group who are among the most marginalised in society, have experienced cuts of 85 per cent to spending on housing and education schemes since 2008.

Spending on equality projects has fallen by three-quarters while other programmes have been cancelled altogether, says Travelling with Austerity, a report analysing cutbacks in spending.

“One can think of no other section of the community which has suffered such a high level of withdrawal of funding and human resources,” said Brian Harvey, a social researcher and author of the report.

“This is compounded by the failure of the state to spend even the limited resources that it has made available,” he said.

The report, commissioned by Pavee Point, the travellers’ rights group, was published as social rights’ organisations met the troika of international lenders to protest about the damaging impact of austerity on Irish society. Social Justice Ireland, a think-tank and advocacy group, accused the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank of foisting an “economically unviable and morally unethical” policy on Ireland.

“At a moral level the current austerity approach is unethical because it was those on low and middle incomes who have borne the brunt of the adjustment rather than the rich and powerful,” said Sean Healy, director of Social Justice Ireland.

Despite implementing tax rises and spending cuts equivalent to 17.5 per cent of gross domestic product since the crisis began, Dublin has a budget deficit of 7.6 per cent – the third highest in the eurozone. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition says it is committed to reducing this to below 3 per cent by 2015, but senior Labour ministers are questioning the pace of consolidation as Dublin prepares to exit its EU-IMF bailout next year.

“I believe that we have reached the limits of austerity now,” said Joan Burton, minister for social protection, in a speech last week. “The truth is that ordinary people everywhere have shouldered too much of the burden,” she said.

Trade unions have called for an easing of austerity following their rejection of a package of reforms agreed with the government.  

In contrast, Fine Gael ministers have said that further cuts and tax increases are needed, and the party disputes that the poorest in society have been hit hardest by austerity measures.

“This is a bogus argument. The top 10 per cent of all income earners pay about 60 per cent of all income tax,” Brian Hayes, Ireland’s deputy finance minister, told the Financial Times.

Ireland currently has an effective marginal income tax rate of 52 per cent, which places it among the 10 OECD states with the highest rates of personal taxation and social contributions.

Government statistics published in February show the economic crisis is pushing more people into poverty, with 16 per cent of people at risk of poverty in 2011, up from 14.4 per cent in 2008.

Poverty rates among Irish travellers are particularly high owing to a long history of marginalisation and discrimination. Just 13 per cent of traveller children complete secondary school compared with 90 per cent in the settled community; 84 per cent of travellers are jobless, compared with a national unemployment rate of about 14 per cent; and traveller men die on average 15 years younger, at 62 years of age, than men in the settled community, the report says.

This makes the travelling community more vulnerable to cuts in funding, according to rights groups, which warn that the reduction in educational spending on traveller programmes from €76.5m in 2008 to €10.2m in 2013 will cause more children to drop out.

“Resource teachers, special needs assistants, home-school liaison services have all been cut back since the crisis began,” says Hugh Friel of Donegal Travellers Project. “This is having a devastating impact on traveller children,” he said.

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