After half a century of helping those in need, Father Sean Healy is retiring from Social Justice Ireland at a time when he fears “thousands of people are at risk of becoming homeless”.
According to Father Healy, who co-founded the organization with Sister Brigid Reynolds, the government has decided to end the eviction ban until the housing crisis is addressed.
He believes the ending of the eviction ban will “undoubtedly” result in more people becoming homeless in the face of “a worsening housing crisis”.
Talking to the Irish independentsaid Father Healy that the “expulsion ban was not really a ban, but a postponement or a moratorium.”
Landlords kept all the rights they had before the introduction, he says, “they just got delayed a little bit.”
He emphasizes that more than a million rental properties in Ireland are having some difficulty making ends meet, with nearly 160,000 experiencing “major difficulties”.
He describes the country’s poverty rates as “an embarrassment” and points out that tenants in 2020 who were unable to pay rent due to financial hardship due to the pandemic were protected. But now tenants are not protected amid the financial hardship of a cost-of-living crisis.
Father Healy, who is a member of the Society of African Missions, will retire from Social Justice Ireland later this year, but will certainly continue his campaign work.
One of his main objectives is that every man, woman and child has enough income to live a life of dignity.
He has “no doubt whatsoever that poverty can be drastically reduced, possibly even eradicated” – but that requires political will, and that will “does not exist”.
Ireland has pledged to eradicate poverty by 2030 under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but “we are very, very far from that.
“Currently we have 680,000 people living in poverty. Not only is that wrong, it’s a disgrace in a country of Ireland’s income level.
“We don’t have to have that situation and by any standards we shouldn’t have that situation.”
Acknowledging that Ireland has “a very successful economy” with very high levels of employment, he argues that “too many of those are low paying jobs”.
For decades, Social Justice Ireland and its predecessor, the Cori Justice Commission, led by Father Healy and Sister Brigid, have advocated a different model of income distribution.
“What we see is what we predicted,” he said. “There is a split going on with a huge number of people on one side who are doing really well.
“They are at the cutting edge of the digital world, AI and all those areas that would be identified with Silicon Docks.
“On the other hand, more and more people are working extremely long hours for minimum wages.
“They belong to the working poor. There are over 100,000 people in Ireland with jobs living in poverty – that should not be the case.”
His passion for justice and his advocacy for the common good were sharpened during his time as a missionary in Africa. After his ordination, the Cork resident spent 10 years in Kaduna from 1970.
Today, the city in northwestern Nigeria is often a victim of ethnic, political and religious violence; and bears the scars of the terror campaign of the Islamist group Boko Haram.
While working there as a missionary there in the 1970s, Father Healy realized that “much of what happened in Africa was actually dictated elsewhere” in transnational corporations.
His understanding of mission changed. “It was difficult to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in a situation where large numbers of people lived in poverty.”
Armed with a PhD from Fordham University in the US, he began to denounce unjust structures and poverty in Ireland.
Now 77 years old, he has earned respect from all sides of the political divide for his sharp criticism and willingness to hold governments accountable for economically unjust policies.
Bluffing and spinning get short shrift as he zooms in deeper on the numbers and shouts
inaccuracies and misleading policies.
According to Father Healy, the treatment of caregivers is a good example of societal failure.
“There are a very large number of people who are carers in our society – those people have insufficient income streams.
“Isn’t there something seriously wrong with a healthcare system that isn’t really supported by the state, or is the support that is there half-baked and really not fit for purpose?”
“As a society, we should be taking care of everyone, and part of that is paying caregivers a basic income.
“If for some reason carers are not entitled to a basic income, show me how you will ensure that each of them has a decent standard of living and is able to meet the basic needs they need.
“It’s not a high bar — if you deliver the basics, you’re not making them a millionaire or sending them on vacation three times a year.”
His solution would be to provide a basic income system – an idea he’s been advocating since the 1980s.
He and Social Justice Ireland’s team of economists have come up with a number of ways the state could do this.
“We’ve shown how it can be set up and we’ve shown how it can be funded,” he says, brushing off the “false” arguments of naysayers.
“You get a certain amount of rejection of basic income from people who have never really looked at it or studied it in detail,” he said — people who resort to “half-baked studies.”
However, the proposal for a universal basic income has gained traction since the pandemic as sectors such as the arts have been put on hold.
The Basic Income for the Arts (BIA) pilot, which supports 2,000 artists and creatives with an allowance of €325 per week, will run until 2025.
He welcomes the arrangement and believes the world of work is likely to change quickly as AI impacts traditional roles.
“The income distribution system we have, which is payment for jobs, will be seen over time as past its sell-by date.”