At the start of last year, we in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice looked forward to 2020. We were full of anticipation of progress on environmental issues, saw signs of hope in the growing divestment from fossil fuels movement and were able to celebrate the Irish Government’s participation in that process.
What we could not anticipate, looking to what that year would hold, was that oil would collapse in price, depreciating to the point where it held a negative value. Of course, the reason we failed to foresee that detail is because we also failed to predict the Covid-19 pandemic, which was already rushing towards us.
2020 is a year that we all were glad to see end, and while the opening week of 2021 has not been much better, we do want to take a moment to reflect on the encouragements we can realistically anticipate over the coming year.
The most immediate hope we have for the year ahead assumes that the vaccine roll-out will be a success and (while Covid-19 may linger with us for generations) that very soon its lethal threat will have evaporated. This alone would make 2021 better than 2020. But of course the pandemic is not only the only threat to wellbeing in Ireland and our existing crises did not just disappear.
These are our hopes and predictions for the coming year, (another unforeseen global catastrophe aside).
Last year we saw the draft Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, which we hope will be significantly strengthened before it becomes law. This year, we look forward to the COP meeting in Glasgow where every nation will gather to establish the next phase of ambitious climate mitigation measures. ’Ambitious’ because we believe (and hope) that with a changed geopolitical situation, this will be a year of breakthroughs.
What we look forward to most, however, is much more humble, local progress. For example, this year the Catholic church will encourage individual parishes and dioceses to commit to a seven-year project of environmental renewal. We trust that such local, truly grassroots initiatives, informed by and informing faith, will make a significant impact in the coming decade.
Also, without denying the very sizeable space for improvement, our current government has made some real achievements. It has recalibrated itsown reporting mechanisms so as to now include the Greenhouse Gas emissions from our wetlands. This might not sound like much, but it is at this low level of detail that the most success will be achieved. This creates an incentive to preserve and repair our extensive peatlands – which might seem dull and insignificant but has huge potential both for climate and biodiversity.
The Irish Prison Service has received praise from around the world for its response to the pandemic. The effort from staff has been immense but we must also acknowledge how the success in keeping the virus subdued has been secured through the effort of prisoners who have adapted to incredibly difficult circumstances and committed to caring for each other’s health.
We are hopeful that this year there will be a significant step forward with the reform of spent convictions. The only constructive reason to have a prison system is that it can offer a space for rehabilitation and reintegration. Society asks people convicted of crimes to serve a sentence. In return, society should allow those people to turn over a new leaf. We welcome moves in this direction.
In the years studying penal policy in Ireland, we have been impressed with the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, especially with Patricia Gilheaney who has occupied the post since 2018. With a new framework for the inspection of prisons, and the publication of a Strategic Plan 2020-23 we have hope that the essential oversight and scrutiny offered by the Inspectorate will help the prison service achieve excellence in their work. Ultimately, we are keen for the Department of Justice to upgrade this office to the status of a full ombudsman, offering prisoners and prison staff an independent body to ensure our criminal justice system is as decent and effective as possible.
The big development in housing and homelessness in Ireland, going into 2021, is that after years of advocating for common sense measures like an end to discretionary eviction – which were always rejected by spurious appeals to constitutional rights – these measures were suddenly introduced with the pandemic. It should be remembered that people were still evicted. But the precedent of the rent-freeze and the eviction-ban is significant.
Ireland is probably still a few years away from being able to lobby for a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to housing (along with other social and economic rights), but some of the obstructions to housing justice have been removed. Poor ideas continue to proliferate within government circles but we have faith that the Housing Minister will recognise the open-goal before his eyes.
As the vaccines take effect, we will need an economic stimulus. With credit available at negative rates, now is the time for the State to commit to large-scale, high quality public housing on a massive scale, building communities fit for the 21st century and eliminating homelessness in the lifetime of this Dáil.
A proliferation of cost rental pilot schemes would be welcome and they will soon be followed by the simple measures required to remedy this crisis.
Tracking the news can be depressing these days, particularly for those of us tasked with examining policy questions. But there is good news to be found. Much of the talk of how we were all together in the pandemic was more sentimental than realistic. However, there is a sense in which communal arguments are much more viable in 2021 than they were at the start of 2020.
2021 is a decisive year for Ireland’s attempts to catch up on the climate and biodiversity catastrophe. It could be a year of real progress in housing and criminal justice too. The JCFJ will keep researching, and advocating to see policies implemented which are creative, sustainable, and just.