Leo’s Gambit: The Myth of the “Welfare Nation”

CG, Baile Átha Cliath

Varadkar’s Red Herring

Leo Varadkar’s career as both Minister for Social Protection and as Taoiseach has been frequented with strong opposition to welfare cheats and appeals to the middle-class. On paper, this sounds like an adequate talking point. One’s natural response is to defend the hard-working majority of Irish people against those who manipulate the system and essentially steal money from the taxpayer. However, upon closer inspection, we begin to see that these ideas are nothing more than fabrications, which are greatly exaggerated by the lackeys of capital in Dáil Éireann. The bogeyman of the welfare cheat is used to accentuate divisions among the working class and create a scapegoat which redirects anger away from the capitalist class.

 

The Reality

When we look at social welfare statistics it does not take long to realise that the number of “welfare cheats” in Ireland is insignificant, at least in the context of Varadkar’s extensive campaigns. In November of 2020, the Irish Examiner reported that in 2019 there were a mere 419 cases of social welfare fraud being investigated (with only a further 86 cases of criminal fraud). In the same year, 1.3 million people received some kind of social welfare. This means that 0.03% of welfare recipients “cheated” the system in 2019, of which 15% were “errors made by the department or officials”. [1] Furthermore, Varadkar’s campaigns as Minister for Social Protection have proven to be a waste of money, as it cost €164,000 and only recouped €300,000. [2] These statistics clearly show that social welfare fraud is carried out by a tiny section of Irish society and the attention it receives is completely blown out of proportion.

 

The Agenda

For a lot of people, the narrative that a government official would lie and generate a false flag to sow hatred and division sounds like a wild conspiracy theory. This is understandable, but it is difficult to ignore the gap between the reality mapped out above and the sensationalist headlines we see in the press: “Report gives stark warning: We’re a welfare nation” (Irish Examiner, 2018), “750,000 social welfare claims to be reviewed as part of Government clampdown on fraud” (The Journal, 2019), “Almost €100m in welfare overpayments recorded in 2020” (Irish Examiner, 2021). These headlines are deliberately misleading and ignore the reality of the insignificant number of supposed “welfare cheats” we see when looking at the raw numbers. On top of this, the government has put out Trump-style misinformation with regards to Leo’s campaigns, falsely claiming they saved €500 million, as debunked by The Journal.[3]

In an article from 2017, the authors demonstrated how a constant media narrative pushing the idea of the social welfare cheat bogeyman served only to assist the government in making cuts to social welfare as a whole:

In further scapegoating ‘blameworthy’ and ‘lazy’ welfare recipients and justifying ‘savings’, politicians and the media repeatedly sensationalise ‘social welfare fraud’. The people of Ireland (and elsewhere) are routinely exposed to television investigations by leading state and commercial stations, print media coverage and vocal pronouncements from establishment politicians claiming that massive fraud is occurring. Ireland’s commercial TV3 station has been quite enthusiastic about this. Between 2011 and 2013, the station repeatedly aired the same documentary on ‘dole cheats’ from the series ‘Paul Connolly Investigates. The TV3 website description of the documentary reads: ‘Paul takes a look at the rampant [sic] problem of social welfare fraud occurring in Ireland’. Whether consciously intended or not, each time this was aired it helped to further crystallise ‘common-sense’ responses to the crisis where ever deeper cuts to social welfare appeared reasonable and something any ‘right minded’ person would expect. [4]

So, why is there such a misleading agenda? For one, it provided a clear message for Varadkar to use as he campaigned for the leadership of Fine Gael. By positioning himself as the candidate for “the people who get up early in the morning”, [5] Varadkar implictly set himself in opposition to those who were “undeserving […] those members of Irish society that he, and thus by extension Fine Gael, do not represent“. [6] Furthermore, as alluded to in the introduction, by having a bogeyman in the form of welfare cheats, Varadkar and his neo-liberal establishment (which includes those who own the media) can redirect the anger of the working-class away from their real enemy, the property-owning class. This fragmentation of the working-class into infighting factions is further developed by Fine Gael’s appeal to the “middle-class”. In the Marxist sense, a middle-class does not exist and any kind of upper-working-class is still a part of the exploited working-class. By using the red herring of welfare cheats, Fine Gael creates an atmosphere where any working-class person could secretly be a robbing, cheating scrounger. Despite the negligible amount of actual welfare “cheats”, headlines like those above create a form of hysteria, which leads to people assuming there are thousands of these welfare wasters, perpetuating and playing up to people’s bigotry against travellers, immigrants, “junkies” etc.

The hypocrisy of the government’s attempt to smear welfare recipients was painful clear to many. Counter-campaigns such as this, or the similar #Ratforleo were vital in challenging the state’s attempted hegemony over welfare discourse

Welfare cheats are the perfect scapegoats for the Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris’ “woke capitalism”. If the Blueshirts used the traditional scapegoats which we see in the UK and USA, such as immigrants, their “woke capitalism” act would be compromised. Modern Fine Gael target the liberal “middle-class”, many of whom would have backed the progressive referendums such as repealing the eighth amendment and legalising gay marriage. Hence, the obscure and hidden enemy of dole fraudsters would maintain their liberal and progressive image, while also alienating the tracksuit-wearing wasters who are portrayed as leeches on our tax contributions. This all serves to protect the real leeches in our society such as the landlords, or the biggest tax dodgers of all: the capitalist multi-nationals.

Ireland does not have a major problem with social welfare fraud and the constant hysteria around this issue is a fabrication. This myth is perpetuated by the capitalist class and their mouthpieces in the media and in government, through over the top articles, wasteful government campaigns and anti-working-class rhetoric.

 

Endnotes

[1] Maresa Fagan, ‘Over 500 suspected welfare fraud cases investigated last year’, Irish Examiner, 14.11.2020, https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-40081907.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

[2] Cormac McQuinn, ‘Only €300,000 recouped since ‘welfare cheat’ ads campaign was launched’, Irish Independent, 13.01.2020, https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/only-300000-recouped-since-welfare-cheat-ads-campaign-was-launched-38855706.html

[3] Cianan Brennan, ‘FactCheck: Did the government really save €500 million due to reported welfare fraud last year?’, The Journal, 18.01.2017, https://www.thejournal.ie/fact-check-leo-varadkar-welfare-cheats-3404165-Jun2017/

[4] Devereux, E. and Power, M. J., ‘Fake News? Critical Analysis of the “Welfare Cheats, Cheat Us All” Campaign in Ireland’, Critical Discourse Studies, Vol. 1, No. 16 (17 January 2019), pp. 5-6.

[5] Sarah Bardon, ‘Varadkar wants to lead party for “people who get up early in the morning”’, The Irish Times, 20.05.2017, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/varadkar-wants-to-lead-party-for-people-who-get-up-early-in-the-morning-1.3090753

[6] Devereux and Power, ‘Fake News?’, p. 2.

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