Read the report of our Income Inequality Workshop Nov 11th

1 December 2022

Income Inequality Workshop 11th of November 2013

Workshop Purpose

  • To tease out campaigning options on income inequality in preparation for the next general election. In particular, to think about what could be politically successful in Ireland in the light of national and international experience
  • To map out a set of options for further research and identify knowledge holes that we need to fill.
  • Consider how we can draw on new learning including the common cause value-based approach both in identifying the most effective campaign and integrating this approach into the campaign methodology.

The workshop had fifteen participants including active members of COF, experts from think tanks with a specific interest in the issue of income/wealth inequality (TASC, NERI), trade unionists (ICTU, SIPTU) mobilisers/ campaigners (MRCI, NWCI, Oxfam) advertising/PR expertise and the Director of Equality Trust in the UK which is doing pioneering work on this issue.


Paula Clancy (CoF), SallyAnn Kinahan (ICTU), Duncan Exley (UK Equality Trust), Tom McDonnell (TASC), Edel McGinley (MRCI), Eoghan O’Neill (CoF), Anna Visser (CoF), Darragh O’Connor (SIPTU), Niall Crowley (CoF), Michael Collins NERI, John Fanning (Tasc), Diarmaid O’Sullivan (Oxfam Ireland), Nina Sachau (CoF), Mary Chambers (no institutional association), Orla O’Connor (NWCI), Nat O’Connor (TASC)

Two documents were used as background/briefing documents. 

  1. The document prepared by the Income Inequality Group which rehearses the case for a campaign on maximum income/wealth, outlines various campaign activities on this issue in other countries, and presents the various options currently in the public domain on this issue (updated and re circulated with this report).
  2. The Common Cause Handbook (Available on

Format and Outcomes

The format of the workshop was to first conduct a tour de table of the participants each of whom offered their perspective on the issue. This was followed by a more free flowing discussion of how we could move forward to develop a campaign/community of interest on the issue.  This report integrates the contributions made in the two sessions around four areas: the nature/focus of a campaign, the issues around framing/communicating campaign messages, the data that is needed and the issues around this  and finally the potential for building a community of interest around the issue. 

Nature/Focus of a campaign

From the various contributions there was a consensus that the change we were seeking as a campaign outcome was a cultural/attitudinal change, i.e. a change in awareness/knowledge about the harmful implications of extreme inequality accompanied by support for policy measures to reduce inequality. Following on from this, it was also broadly agreed that we should select a policy change which would best lever this cultural change.

There was a consensus that we should select one issue if possible. It was also thought that an overarching theme of Economic Inequality could provide the necessary coherence between related issues.

There was varying support for the range of options for a campaign focus as listed in the COF Income Inequality document.  All are restated here with some of the pros and cons for each option.    

Maximum income.  Examples of the 1:12 referendum Switzerland and the Swiss Fat Cat Initiative. Maximum income has the potential to be an issue that will lever cultural change in attitudes to economic inequality. It should be noted that this was the issue most spoke in favour of.

There would be a number of challenges to be overcome in designing a good campaign for a maximum income.  For example, In the UK proposals to introduce a 1.20 ratio in the public sector met with a great deal of resistance – problems cited are the variability of ratios across companies; dangers of outsourcing of lowest –paid employees etc.

Michael Collins will produce a paper on how a maximum income could be calculated and providing a metric for same in early 2014 under the auspices of the NERI.

Wealth Tax. It was noted that in the aggregate tax levels are very low in Ireland in international terms.  While data is very poor this is changing somewhat and has not prevented analysts producing data that can credibly be worked with. It was noted that in the 1980s’ in the UK, very high taxation rates of 80% at the top was very useful in changing the environment.

Secrecy/transparency: It was suggested that a campaign addressing the secrecy around both top pay and the level of tax avoidance and tax evasion would be valuable.  

Data on tax paid by individuals and corporations is a necessary prerequisite if we want to bring about attitudinal and cultural change to tax evasion and tax avoidance.  Currently, there is very little information on either private companies or the tax affairs of the very rich.

Living Wage:  a campaign similar to the Living wage campaign in UK . Making the case for a living wage is very achievable because it is very hard for politicians to be against it.

Expansion of the financial services sector ( a key driver of inequality).  Currently Ireland is on the wrong side of moves to address this problem, for example the Markets In Financial Instruments Directive (MIFED) is setting acceptable limits for speculation in stocks and efforts to bring in a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT). There is increasing appetite for regulation of the financial sector – Oxfam are currently working on this issue.

The issues around framing/communicating campaign messages

Below are a series of points made in the course of contributions and discussion over the course of the day grouped under two headings – cultural context for framing the issue of economic inequality and the kind of messages which are likely to have impact.  These points should be incorporated into campaign planning. There are likely to be advertising people who are sympathetic to our goal and would help us but they work to a brief which we would need to prepare.

Cultural context for framing the issue of economic inequality:

  • Poor public knowledge about economic inequality issues:  underestimation of degree of inequality; misperception amongst the general public about own place in relation to this.
  • Most people will say that inequality is bad but polling date suggests that it is not an important issue for people; most people don’t care about it as such. It is, however, becoming a bigger issue in business circles and high political circles. 
  • While Ireland is a centre-right country Irish people have strong values of fair crack of the whip which could be tapped into.
  • Need to develop the arguments around the unethical nature of inequality.  In the UK (Equality Trust), those promoting inequality are dubbed ‘anti-patriotic’ and ‘anti-productivity’ ‘anti-capitalism’. UK Research shows that wide ratios in companies demoralises those at the bottom end of the distribution (usually the majority).
  • In the UK, only the top 10% contribute to political parties with democratically accountability issues arising. Likely to be similar in Ireland.
  • Culture of secrecy in public administration.
  • There are some attitudes/perceptions in the UK that are likely to have resonance in the Irish situation:
  • Talking about redistribution is not popular, but some taxes on high incomes wealth, for example the mansion tax are popular.
  • Most people don’t think of themselves as rich or poor – Important therefore not to talk about the gap between the rich and the poor.  Better to frame it as the gap between the ‘richest and the rest’. Key to build solidarity amongst the rest.
  • Problems also with the word inequality because of misperceptions better to talk about excessive inequality
  • Avasion.  Culturally, tax avoidance as well as tax evasion is increasingly looked on negatively.
  • We need to examine the cultural barriers to messages promoting a reduction in inequality: Myth that Ireland is not a class society; Ireland is a catholic country – catholic societies accept inequalities more readily.
  • We need to dramatise  economic inequality . For example the “Cathy Come Home” film set in London in the 1960s  had a great impact  because it was dramatic.  A film about Darren from Darndale and Dylan from Dalkey.  Example of US short movie about a campaign to save Libraries


  • It is necessary to get an emotional response so the campaign must decide what this is.
  • Can build on a cultural norm/value of everybody getting a fair crack of the whip. Most people in the 1% are there because they are born in there. No one with income of €1m plus has ‘earned’ it.
  • ‘Inequality is bad for business’ There is evidence from UK research that if a business does well it does so because of the efforts of the whole work force. Furthermore, large numbers of people are demotivated because of their perception that pay and pay ratios are unfair. Constraining market incomes is good: there is support for some form of redistribution –tax is a big driver of inequality – UK had high tax rates in the 80s and that made a big difference.
  • The concept of ‘enough’
  • Inequality is not an inevitable part of life
  • There are alternatives and Western societies have not always been this unequal.
  • Policy intervention necessary to make this a reality. 
  • ‘Redistribution to the rich’ is a powerful phrase to use to make the point that current policy/absence of policy results in this outcome.
  • It is possible to reduce inequality in ways that are not damaging to economic productivity.
  • Inequality breaks society into castes! Being one society working together is important to say.
  • Need to establish the link between Increasing profits and growing levels of unemployment, low wages.  Reference to more equal societies.
  • Gender as a key driver of economic inequality
  • Counter messages. We need to identify all the counter messages and address them Some examples: ’It is bad for growth’, ‘we are still in recession’, ‘everybody thinks they are in the middle’.
  • Use of infographics . Relentlessly presenting the information in innovative ways is very critical.In Ireland, ICTU and TASC produced a H.E.A.P chart for use in schools which was quite impactful. This could be developed further. Equality Trust in UK use this tool continuously. Examples of similar:  Equalitybriefing (UK) Too Much (US).
  • UK (Equality Trust) Experience: Messages must always be framed in comparative terms.  For example, discussion about the pay of CEOs always presented relative to average workers.

Availability of data-Consideration of what further is needed.

Absence of good data is a critical issue.  Good quality information is an essential prerequisite. As yet, no real indication that this is likely to change in any substantive way.[1]

Building a Community of interest.

Groups already working on issue:

  • Mortgage arrears groups (cultural change around debt justice},
  • Global Justice Groups (Oxfam, DDCI),
  • Think Tanks: Social Justice Ireland, TASC, NERI,
  • Budget Equality group,
  • CPD groups,
  • Trade union Movement
  • Faith based groups (Vincent de Paul),
  • Likeminded Business people

However, it is necessary to transform these disparate groups into an actual community of interest around the overarching theme of economic equality.

ICTU/Siptu interested in a campaign.  TU movement has particular priorities: low income/pay, improving the environment for collective bargaining.




[1] References to data that is available: 1).Collins, M  NERI Paper on Maximum income to be available in early 2014applying similar methodology to that which is used to calculate minimum income to establish a benchmark for what constitutes too much. Will use research data available on the top 1%.

2.M. Collins NERI Research inBrief on Ireland’s income distribution. I plan to write something similar once a year during the summer months:

  1. 3.  Graphs on the shape of Ireland’s income distribution in the January 2013 (Winter) QEO -. See section 4 of the document and the presentation slides here:;

4. Nolan Brian 2012, work on top 1 %  (M. Collins to pass on).