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Exploring the ‘harm of inaction’

The latest issue of Working Notes », the journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, explores the harm that has been done through inaction in areas of public policy such as housing, economics, criminal justice, and environment. The theme, ‘Harm of Inaction’, emerged from the recent visit of Pope Francis to Ireland when he met with survivors of clerical abuse. His visit subsequently led to the establishment of the ‘Project for the Promotion of a Consistent Culture of Child Protection,’ administered by the Irish Jesuits.

As the housing crisis in Ireland continues to worsen, more and more people are unable to afford to rent or to buy a home. At the hard end of the crisis is the growing number of people who are homeless, with official figures at just under 10,000. The impact, particularly on families, of having to live precarious lives in hostels, homeless hubs, hotels and bed and breakfasts will be profoundly negative. In the opening article, Dalma Fabian examines the interconnectedness of homelessness and trauma. Not only are people who have suffered trauma in their life more likely to become homeless, being homeless itself causes trauma.

The article highlights research showing that trauma and homelessness are connected in at least three ways. Firstly, trauma is prevalent in the narrative of many people’s pathway to homelessness, often in childhood. Secondly, trauma often happens during homelessness, for example, by being a victim or witness of an attack, sexual assault or any other violent event. Thirdly, homelessness itself can be traumatic in multiple ways. Often the loss of a home coincides with other losses, for instance loss of family connections and social roles.

In mid-January over 600 people were on hospital trolleys — the majority in A&E — waiting to be admitted. Waiting is endemic in the Irish health care system, and a primary reason why more than 40% of the population pays for private health insurance. In the second article, Sheelah Connolly explores the benefits of universal healthcare, juxtaposing these against the harm caused by long waiting lists and unequal access to care. Describing the Irish healthcare system as being “at a crossroads”, Connolly questions whether or not there is the political will for a more equitable system.

The Irish legal system follows an adversarial model where representatives of each party seek truth through debate and legal argument. The process focuses on the wrongdoer while victims are often re-traumatised and feel powerless. In the third article Tim Chapman examines restorative justice and how it can be used as an alternative to addressing harm, arguing that there is greater potential for positive outcomes, particularly for victims.

Chapman, who is a visiting lecturer at Ulster University and current chairperson of the European Forum for Restorative Justice, refers to an offender who expresses a desire for such an approach: “I want to show who I am, that I am so much more than an offender. I am not bad, it was just a stupid moment, a phase in my life where I was lost. I hope that they want to listen to my story”.

Avoided in Budget 2019, carbon tax was back in political discourse in January, albeit to alleviate fears that people may have about its future tax burden. At a gathering of Fine Gael political representatives, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton, said that any future introduction of a carbon tax would be to “nudge people” to change their behaviour and would not be designed to raise revenue. The final article of this issue of Working Notes suggests that a shove, rather than a “nudge” is needed in responding to climate change. Thomas Muinzer highlights that potentially irreversible climate change is being caused by human actions, with a growing volume of greenhouse gases causing the earth’s temperature to rise beyond scientifically proven, safe levels.

Editor Eoin Carroll states: “The harms that are detailed in these essays are not the result of individual poor decisions… What is envisioned is the creation of a culture of protection, where care is seen to be integral to the justice initiatives of the Society of Jesus. The difference is seismic, between the negative freedom of ‘do no harm’ and the positive freedom of ‘intentional and effective care'”.