This article provides a critical commentary on Irish activation policy. It is framed with reference to the point made in Pathways to Work 2016–2020 point that a key purpose of activation is ‘to help ensure a supply of labour at competitive rates ’ (Government of Ireland, 2016, p. 14). It looks at how a tougher work-first activation regime can be situated within the wider landscape of reform and retrenchment in the social protection system following the 2008 financial crisis. Broadly utilising Pierson’s concepts of programmatic and systemic retrenchment, it situates the roll-out of activation within shifts toward greater reliance on means-tested benefits for the unemployed, and toward work first, with varying degrees of compulsion, for other working-age adults in the social protection system. Suggesting that this results in a hierarchy of ‘welfare sacrifice’ for the sake of the competitiveness of the Irish economy, it also looks briefly at how some of these ‘sacrifices’ are experienced by different groups both in and out of the labour market. The article concludes by noting that the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily transformed state–market relations such as these; however, whether this offers the opportunity to forge a more supportive turn in activation policy post-pandemic remains an open question.