You’ve Won The Irish Sweepstakes – The Outsourcing of Responsibility in South Ireland

You’ve won the Irish Sweepstakes An article taken with permission from
When the Saorstát was set up the new administration choose the least path of resistance when it came to the provision of a number of important services. Two fundamental services necessary for the development of a state where effectively devolved from state control – Education and Health. While there may have been a reason at the start to do so to allow this to continue for decades was a serious failure of State responsibility and helped create or perpetuate a state not able to identify its responsibilities and act on them.
Significant elements of Health care was provided by a mix of hospitals predominantly ran by the catholic church, with some few provided by the protestant churches and some intermittent, and resisted, state oversight. However while both voluntary hospitals resisted the state they accepted its funding as and when needed. The Saorstat was naturally in a financially weakened state considering the turbulent times it had passed through. Due to a low population base and a weakened economy it had difficulty raising the necessary funds to support hospitals. The answer was the Irish hospital sweepstakes – a state monopoly on lottery i.e a gambling racket – not that I don’t have anything against a flutter but you’d think churches would. The sweepstakes was an okay idea in the sense that it managed to extend the funding of hospitals beyond the limited population of the saorstát with significant funds coming from abroad. It was a bad idea in that it was used to fund institutions which were not under the absolute control of the state but were the equivalent of privatised institutions. Mary Harney would have liked the idea – State money to support non-state monopolies of critical services.

The Sweepstake itself was open to all the flaws of a racket managed by Govts. (of both parties) with a penchant for handing responsibility to someone, anyone. The American edition of Reader’s Digest once described the Sweeps as “the greatest bleeding heart racket in the world”. Many of the funds raised in America of Britain never made it back to Ireland but went into the pockets of distributors. But there was a more pernicious element to the Sweepstakes than that.

The story of the Sweepstakes has many parallels with modern Ireland. The Sweepstakes was set up with loopholes that allowed its organisers leave large sums undeclared as expenses. The impact of the sweepstakes started to spread to other sectors beyond the health. Soon directors of the Sweepstakes were to be found in every sector of the economy with some directors sitting on up to 30 company boards. Similar to the golden circle mapped by TASC a small group of men were taking control over every aspect of the economy. Apparently RTE had enough material in the mid 1970s to expose the deep concerns many felt about the Sweepstakes. It will surprise no one that RTE choose not to broadcast it. (How RTE can be made a neutral non-govt. controlled station is an important challenge for the future.)

The state failing to provide important services, instead relying on non-state institutions funded by state raised revenue, corruption and the misuse of state funds to gain control of wide sectors of the economy, a media gagged and incapable of reporting the truth. A decades long story unchallenged by FF or by FG.

Education is also another area where the state just mosied on glad that someone else was doing the lifting. Currently about 90% of primary schools are patroned by the Roman Catholic church. These schools are privately owned, publicly funded institutions. Across the school sector the state is an outside party – there to pay the bills. The patron is not a figure head. They have ultimate responsibility for the school ethos, the appointment of the board of management, financial and legal matters and the supervision of staff appointments in accordance with Department regulations. Patrons generally discharge their responsibilities in close consultation with boards of management and other interested parties involved in the schools. In other words they have significant powers.

While the catholic church figures heavily in the outsourcing of Education as well this is not about the catholic church. Indeed there are many other denominations and of course non-denominational schools. Similarly while in the Health sector there are some very objectionable acts by catholic denominated churches. (Notably in 2005 the board of the Mater Hospital in Dublin stopped a trial for a new cancer drug. Women who wished to take part in the trial could not get pregnant which obviously meant they had to use contraception or not have sex. This was in conflict with the ethos. Money from gambling was not in conflict with the ethos of hospitals though – but as horrible a story as that is I am not trying to focus on the catholic church here)

The main focus must be on the state’s tendency to step back from taking responsibility for critical functions. While they may have reason to do so for a few years at the foundation of the southern state it was not acceptable to leave the situation continue for decades across two of the most important areas in which a state must provide services. To do so was to accept the principle that any service, no matter how critical need not fall under the Govt’s direct and complete control. The Govt. became a partner rather than a leader. Rather than forcing the pace of change, modernisation etc. it just sat back and let society drift. Little surprise then that the current Govt. has provided little leadership in the financial crisis. Instead it has taken the Banks at their word, it has followed the interests of the developers and the golden circle rather than steering its own course. Commentators like David McWilliams and Brian Lucey have both wondered aloud about whose interest the Govt. is serving. At this point about 3/4 of the south’s residents agree its not the Irish nation. But I dont believe that the Govt. could ever have done anything other than follow the Banks and the advice of the special interest groups even if they were not as delinquent as they have proven. The tradition of governance in south Ireland is not one of leadership but of relinquishing sovereignty to any group willing to take over some of its tasks.

Fianna Fail stand indicted as do Fine Gael on this point.

The final point on this abdication of responsibility I will leave to Professor Kathleen Lynch who recently gave the annual Tasc lecture. In a speech entitled From a Neo-Liberal to an Egalitarian State: Imagining a Different Future’ she notes:
As a society, we do not have a strong commitment to public solidarity despite our rhetoric. This is reflected in failure over the course of the last 10 years for social welfare provisions to keep pace with the cost of living. We have one of the lowest rates of social expenditures on education, housing, transport and welfare within the EU. (See Tables 1 and 2 below using the SILC data). Our lack of commitment to the public sphere is evident in many concrete ways, from the lack of public spaces for play for children (especially safe indoor places) to the lack of public sports facilities, to the lack of investment parks and public amenities in so many towns and villages.

It is even evident in our churches. Most of our leisure and sports facilities are actually privately owned by clubs that are legally constituted as private bodies; GAA pitches, tennis courts, gyms, rugby pitches, golf courses etc. are all private. Indoor play areas for children are almost universally commercial. And the lack of commitment to the good of the public sphere is evident when public and private interests collide; it is evident in the way space is organised and the quality of the built environment between public and private hospitals, in the relative luxury and comfort of private rooms versus public wards; it is visible in the pitches, tennis courts and other facilities in well-off schools compared with the bare yards of small fields that are there for those in less-well-off or poorer areas.

Irish economics 15.10.2010

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