Jan 20, 2022

“A hospital built using State funds should be fully owned and operated by the State”. This statement is part of a Private Members Motion debated by Dáil Eireann in June 2021 and reflects a broadly held view among political parties, especially those on the left, that what the state funds, the state should own.

On the face of it, this statement makes total sense. If the State funds something, it should have control over it – right? But it’s worth considering the implications, beyond the National Maternity Hospital, if this thinking was to translate, generally, into action.

This would have to start with considering how dependent the Irish state is on the voluntary sector. Two thirds of all disability services, for instance, are delivered by voluntary bodies, and in housing and homelessness, the state relies hugely on voluntary bodies to provide vital services.

Many are now fully funded or almost fully funded by the state, so if the thinking is that they should be owned by the state, then everyone who works and who isn’t already a public servant, would become one for the purposes, say, of pensions. That would amount to a nice bill for the exchequer!

But beyond the bill for the taxpayer, something very valuable would be lost if the state took over the fully funded voluntary sector.

Right up to recent times, it is the voluntary sector which has and continues to step up to meet need. The hospice movement is a good example of where communities got together to fundraise to set up a service which was really needed but was not being provided.

Parents came together to form Educate Together, and Gaelscoileanna. Mental health services have grown up respond to a real need for services in communities and all age groups. Autism charities have emerged and are doing excellent work.

The voluntary sector is agile and flexible – and passionate – in responding to need. This kind of energy and commitment is vital and should not be lost. What’s needed is a real partnership between the voluntary sector and the state, which recognises the key and unique role played by the sector in the community and as part of our democracy, speaking up for people, making change happen, and holding the state to account. Let’s not lose that.