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View from Dublin: inequality is still with us

By Brendan Keenan

It is difficult to find a direct connection between rising inequality in Britain and the anger which produced the Brexit vote, a learned professor said this month. Perhaps it is, but my goodness, it is tempting to try.

The professor in question was Dr Brian Nolan of the University of Oxford and he was speaking at a conference to mark 50 years of social research at the ESRI. Inequality was quite the subject last month, with the OECD producing its Global Income Inequality update.

At least this is research, whatever the difficulties of measurement and interpretation, unlike the glib unchallenged assertions which often pass for debate.

It is hard to think of a bigger gap between what is identified and what is believed than is the case with inequality in Ireland. One could not blame readers for looking for the misprint in the reports of the ESRI paper. That's right - it didn't get worse, despite what you will have heard and read almost everywhere.

Most of these surveys deal with inequality of income, and income is not everything. The left-leaning think tank Tasc reckoned a proper measure of inequality would have to include things like wealth, poverty, public services, taxation and a catch-all measure of the cost of living. But that does not easily lend itself to measurement or comparisons.

Nevertheless, a narrative has been constructed showing Ireland as a bad apple, where society is particularly ill-divided and those in lower income groups draw an especially short straw. Except that, when it comes to income, the facts appear to be pretty much the opposite.

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