Dan O’Brien does a half-striptease in the Irish Times and comes out in favour of a comprehensive welfare state and in so doing laments the fact that there is no debate in Ireland about this. He is correct. I would venture that there is no debate in Ireland because there is no welfare state in Ireland, at least by the standards of other European countries. Ireland lags behind other countries in the EU-15 in terms of welfare provision. As Vicenc Navarro has pointed out, it shares this laggard status with countries that were dictatorships for considerable periods in the second half of the 20th century, namely Spain, Portugal and Greece. The map in yesterday’s Guardian showed how Ireland has had a right-wing government for the last 38 years. That very fact has a substantial effect on how people perceive welfare states. As well as that, the authoritarian character of the Catholic Church in Ireland and its preoccupation that any form of state provision for social need was a form of incipient communism, means that what welfare provision there is in Ireland is often presented as though it were charity, not an entitlement. The moralising idea of the state being ‘generous’ is a commonplace, and was on display in Joan Burton’s speech to the McGill Summer School yesterday. So it is no surprise that there is a little bit of Timothy Winters in everyone.

But O’Brien, while lamenting the lack of debate, declares that the debate has already been settled elsewhere in favour of moves away from universal provision – ‘internationally, the debate is essentially over’. He therefore sees no need to supply any reason as to why universalism in provision (for instance, in child benefit) might be worth having, e.g. it serves to keep the standard of provision high and functions as a basic moral statement that every child in the society is considered equal. Universalism in the provision of child benefit also recognises that looking after children is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of parents.

Funny way of starting a debate. But ‘having a debate’ rarely means having a debate.

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