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A new welfare imaginary for the island of Ireland

13 September 2021

In today’s ARINS blog, Mary P. Murphy discusses how our society can collaborate to imagine a better welfare state across issues of social security, poverty and inequality, north and south.

A ‘welfare imaginary’ is a sociological concept referring to the set of values, institutions, laws and symbols through which people imagine their social whole, but the word ‘imaginary’ can more simply refer to imagination. I like to think that the article ‘A New Welfare Imaginary for the Island of Ireland’, I have just published in Irish Studies in International Affairs: ARINS, might play a role in sparking our collective sociological imagination about how social security and related issues of poverty and inequality should inform discussion of any shared future for this island.

Responses to my paper, by Dr Charles O’Sullivan and Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, and Prof. Fred Powell, respectively discuss challenges of collaborative work on social security in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and question the degree of overall welfare state convergence, but both agree there is enough to collaborate about. The complicated nature of social security, where the devil is in the detail, and the lack of specific Northern Irish social security data, mean we should avoid focusing learning on processes of comparative analysis that trap us in what Freud described as the ‘narcissism of small differences’. Rather, the focus should be on prospects for Ireland’s future; understanding the context and constraints within which decisions will be made and finding frameworks for developing complementary forms of income support and progressive tax systems that enable collective sustainability.

In a sense my ARINS article and responses to it can be interpreted as an act of public sociology expanding the boundaries of welfare sociology to engage with non-academic audiences. While some social security scholars in Ireland see social security policy in Northern Ireland (as opposed to the UK more generally) as mostly irrelevant to larger political economy issues in a European context, others see the potential relevance of thinking about social security across the island of Ireland. There has been historical ‘social psychological resistance’ towards joint knowledge mobilisation on the island. David Rottmann, in a 1999 review, outlined formidable obstacles to comparing problems and perspectives across the two Irelands, and an absence of advancing analysis through north/south comparison. Two decades later there is little recent cross jurisdictional work to draw from. Mary Corcoran has observed that academic all-island networks have not to date been a catalyst for comparative research.

A proposal for a new ‘all-island welfare laboratory’ explored in my article is endorsed by O’Sullivan and Fitzpatrick as having significant potential for boundary crossing,  combining academic knowledge and methodology in an approach that enables a new discursive dynamic capable of generating new knowledge, norms and imaginations for welfare on the island of island. Such a  north-south social security ‘laboratory of democracy’  could be informed by the work of the wider All Island Social Security Network (ASSIN), proposed by welfare state scholars in Ireland, which could identify and address gaps in data and analysis concerning social security provision north and south of the border, and create new collaborations for comparative contributions. A similar process in Scotland, even in the context of limited devolution, has successfully charted an imaginative pathway to a more social democratic or Nordic vision for the Scottish welfare state.

Ideally, such collaborations should not be between academics but between academics, NGOs, claimants’ representative groups. They should not be solely about social security but should address cross-sectoral questions in overlapping fields, including how climate change will impact on social security and how a different approach to income support might generate positive impacts for capacity to fight climate change. The AISSN should also focus on intersectional realities of poverty and inequality, women, particularly young people, and ethnic minorities including Travellers. Special effort should be made to proactively include amongst project partners those involved in social security law and welfare rights, service providers and women’s groups and to keep grounded with input and testimony from lived experience part of the ongoing process of networking.   

There are many gaps in our collective knowledge, and much that could be done in ‘mobilising an ‘an island welfare imaginary’, and while there is significant potential we should be sober in judging possibilities and constraints and remain erudite and in the context of necessarily complex analysis. The potential includes identifying and mapping the common themes and ideologies that inform contemporary social security provision on the island of Ireland, building a framework for a shared vision of the social security system, hosting an all-island conference, building a website and  information hubs, submitting funding applications, and discrete collaborations. We need all-island processes of knowledge mobilisation that can contribute towards an ‘island welfare imaginary’ which draws on Nordic social democratic and universal models of welfare states and seeks to maximise social and economic participation as a way of rooting solidarity and reciprocal citizenship.

Read the full article by Mary P. Murphy, ‘A new welfare imaginary for the island of Island’ as it appears in our journal Irish Studies in International Affairs: ARINS. A reply to Fred Powell and to Charles O'Sullivan, and Ciara Fitzpatrick is also available here.

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