What if…Ireland abolished the Dole?

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It was Ireland’s first left-led government that carried out the dirty deed.

To be fair to them, they hadn’t exactly abolished Employment Assistance as much as suspended it during a time of near full employment, and it had been the heretofore socialist minister for housing who had first concluded there was no alternative.
“Here’s the reality,” he told his cabinet colleagues.
“We are in a national housing emergency. We desperately need to boost housing supply. We have the funds, we have the land on which to build. What we don’t have are physical builders. Plumbers, bricklayers, plasters, electricians. Nor can we import them from the rest of Europe because there is nowhere for those workers to live. On top of that, we are losing existing indigenous construction skills to the Von Der Leyen Plan and the rebuilding of Ukraine. In short, we must create more construction skilled people from the existing population. We have successfully recruited from immigrants and we have created large apprenticeships and training programs to meet our needs. What we don’t have are willing bodies. We do, however, have 116,000 on the live register who say they are available for work.”

“You’re suggesting we force people to build houses?” another minister asked incredulously.

The housing minister shrugged.

“I’m taking our situation to its logical conclusion. We simply cannot meet, never mind exceed, our need for new housing units without thousands of extra construction workers. If we do not take drastic action, we will never end the housing emergency. Never. “

“But even Thatcher never did this!”

“Thatcher never wanted to solve a housing crisis. Look, I get how extreme this is. But this isn’t some ideological attack on the welfare state. We’re at 3% unemployment, effectively full employment. This is it: if we want to end the housing crisis, this is what we have to do. I would also remind comrades that we are a socialist party, and that under socialism there is no such thing as unemployment, and therefore no unemployment insurance. The state has an obligation, a duty, a responsibility to find gainful and productive work for all its citizens, and in a way we are lucky that such a noble calling, the building of much needed actual shelter for their fellow comrades, is available to them.”

The minister for finance, whose commitment to socialism had never been particularly loud, gazed off into the distance.

The announcement that the government was to require those on longer term unemployment assistance to take up either jobs in the state construction agency, if qualified, or to undergo training with regard to construction skills stunned the country. As part of the compromise, the Taoiseach had agreed that short term recipients of the dole would not be required to participate as advisors from the Department of Social pointed out that short term recipients tended to be just passing through to other jobs. The bill would also have a trigger to suspend the requirement if unemployment rose above 6%.

She also informed the Dail that when the Social Welfare (Availability to Work) bill was proposed she would permit a free vote among government deputies.

Pundits immediately declared that this meant that the bill would be rejected, as the opposition parties would inevitably vote with rebel government TDs to defeat the government’s narrow Dail majority. However, as details emerged, and public discourse began, the situation became complicated.

The Allsorts Left immediately opposed the bill, as did the Social Democrats and what was left of the Labour Party and the Greens. But both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael TDs hesitated until they could take soundings from their constituents. The first demonstrations against “The Slavery Bill” were big and noisy, filling Kildare Street and its surrounds. But what was noticed was the fact that it was the usual suspects who opposed it. The people who opposed everything.

The first opinion poll on the subject showed it wasn’t a done deal. It was true 40% of voters were opposed to the proposal, but 38% were in favour, and the balance weren’t sure. But what really caused the parties anxiety was the views of party voters. FF and FG voters were broadly in favour with notable opposition, the left parties were overwhelmingly against. But Sinn Fein voters were split down the middle, with their working class voters sharply divided.

Stressing that it was a temporary measure which would be scrapped if unemployment rose again, the Taoiseach decided to push ahead, and after accepting some opposition amendments (including a €25 rise in the rate) the bill narrowly passed with 20 SF TDs voting against but most FF and FG TDs voting in favour.

The passing of the bill was, in the words of one left-wing commentator, the closest Ireland would come to a trigger for a French-style response. The bill went through the Seanad and then to the president who referred it to the Supreme Court to rule on its constitutionality. The court ruled in favor, and suddenly it was the law.

The regional training centres set up to assess and train the new trainees became the focal point of protests, with large demonstrations gathering at each under the banner of “No to slavery!” One sharp-tongued wag in the Irish Independent pointed out the protests only really started in the afternoon on account of the protestors “struggling to get out of the scratcher”.

Within weeks the impact of the new requirement was felt. First the DSP reported that there was a significant drop in claimants, as they ceased receiving payments but did not turn up at training centres. The department put the discrepancy down to people claiming the dole whilst actually working in the black market, and now unable to actually physically attend. A significant number of recipients did turn up reluctantly, some joining protestors outside, or entering the facility to stage a sit-down protest. But when they found that failure to participate in training meant they didn’t receive their payment, they got into line. Finally, there was a large group who began to actually enjoy the training and the learning of the new skills. One of these, a young black man, was called “a scab” at an RTE covered protest, by a very plummy voiced young socialist woman on one of the pickets, and who proceeded to denounce him for betraying his “African-American” brothers.

“African-American?” he asked. “I’m from bleeding Coolock.”

As images of young men and women working in vast halls began to seep out, support for the new policy began to creep up in the polls. The protestors started getting into scuffles with trainees, with a lot of Sebastians and Caoimhes from Foxrock calling people from Jobstown “class traitors”. Punches were occasionally thrown, tending to travel up in social class.

Not all trainees were as enthusiastic. A significant proportion claimed back injuries during training, and were sent home with sick pay. But they then discovered a willingness amongst their neighbours to report them to social protection fraud investigators if they miraculously recovered.

By the time of the following election, the policy was now broadly supported, with only the far left promising to restore the old system. Even those Sinn Fein TDs who had opposed it quietly dropped their opposition when they started finding hostility in working areas to a policy reversal. As in other countries, it turned out that the greatest opposition to welfare abuse came from the working class itself.

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