Homeless find comfort in a bandwagon

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Environment minister Alan Kelly

‘BEDS for all!’, exclaimed environment minister Alan Kelly on Thursday. ‘Beds for all by Christmas! In Dublin at least!’ There might have been a little smattering of applause to greet this announcement but, if there was, no one could have heard it over all the craw-thumping.

A man dying on the street in the freezing cold, close to Christmas and close to Leinster House, has inspired the government to revisit some of its broken pledges to deal with homelessness. A man living on the street in the freezing cold, close to Christmas and close to Leinster House, was never able to do as much.

A high-profile emergency summit was convened; there were candle-lit vigils; the Archbishop of Dublin talked of throwing open doors; municipal funds were made to materialise out of nowhere; the spectre of lone men sitting by electric fires in squalid bedsits reappeared; personal moral inventories were taken.

“We are all to blame,” said various commentators, using no doubt much the same logic that has persuaded us we’re also all individually to blame for decades of institutional child sex abuse, global warming, and the collapse of the international banking system.

Are we though? Realistically, apart from donating to homeless charities, volunteering for soup runs and taking homeless people home with you, there isn’t a great deal that you or I can do to alleviate the crisis. Most of us lack the expertise and the experience and not least the budget. However, the dash to the moral high ground has become a stampede this week, so I ask the reader to please excuse my dust as well.

When I lived in Dublin, I often ‘rescued’ sleeping people from the freezing streets. The experience taught me a lot about the futility of zealous juvenile philanthropy. All you could do was give them a bed for the night, and a meal, and some cash if you had it, and then send them back to the same streets the next day. Unless you actually invite them to live with you, how much good are you doing?

And I recall with shame one case where my naive intervention actually made things worse. Because of being in my house, miles from where he needed to be, a recovering heroin addict missed the next day’s methadone programme appointment with his GP. His only recourse was to score some heroin or experience ferocious withdrawal symptoms that would include, as he put it, “losing bowel control”. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and littered with the supine bodies of the desperate.

Homeless agencies, knowing what they know, are sceptical about the plans to give everyone in Dublin a bed in time for Christmas. Brother Kevin Crowley of the Capuchin Day Centre, which provides hot meals for the homeless, wasn’t invited to Alan Kelly’s emergency summit and was inclined to be cynical on the whole subject.

“Homeless people have been dying on the streets for years but it took one outside the Dáil to get attention,” he was reported as saying. Brother Crowley said he’d like to see less talk and more action in any case.

Enda Kenny was in action on Thursday night, out on the streets with Inner City Helping Homeless and getting credit on two counts. He was praised both for the worthiness of the exercise itself, and for his magnanimity in not notifying the press of it. He should also get some credit for realpolitik, in that his failure to issue a press release didn’t lead to the sacrifice of so much as an inch of coverage in the next day’s papers.

The homeless people with whom the Taoiseach spoke on the streets must have been pleasantly surprised to find themselves comfortably accommodated for once, albeit only in the back seat of a bandwagon.

The coalition has now pledged to end long-term homelessness by 2016, hopefully before rather than after the next election. It might be churlish to remind them that they already pledged to end long-term homelessness more than three years ago, in the 2011 Programme for Government.

In November that year, former environment minister Phil Hogan, expressing himself in his characteristic, uniquely humanitarian language, outlined a new “client-driven” approach to homelessness, in which “the money would follow the client”. He wanted to enhance the role of the private sector in helping the homeless find “long-term housing outcomes”.

There were 168 people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin at the last official count in November, up from 139 in the winter of 2013, and 87 in winter of 2011, when Hogan made his announcement. That’s almost a 100% increase in rough sleepers in Dublin since the coalition assumed office. How’s that Programme for Government working out then? Money still following the client and all that? Outcomes taking shape?

There are no ‘typical’ homeless people, and the reasons for homelessness are complicated and various, touching on addiction, family breakdown, mental illness, and the transition from institutional care, as well as the sheer brutality of economics. One thing seems fairly clear though, and that is that it is not a problem that can be solved by seasonal grandstanding – or indeed, by successive governments stifling the work of homeless agencies, whose funding was cut by 20% between 2008 and 2012.

Mental health is a huge factor: as many as 50% of homeless people in Ireland are reported as having a mental health problem. Causation is unclear but the correlation is all too evident. Mentally ill people are more likely to become homeless, and the mental health of homeless people is more precarious. Nevertheless, spending on mental health services has dropped from €937m in 2006 to €733m last year.

Ireland’s mental health strategy is set out in a high-minded 2006 document called ‘A Vision for Change’, which we’re spectacularly failing to live up to. We were supposed to increase mental health spending to 8.24% of the overall health budget. Instead it languishes at a little over 5%. The European average is closer to 12%, and even in Ireland it was 13% back in the mid-1980s.

In a Europe-wide survey in October this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit described Ireland’s mental health strategy as “a good policy implemented very slowly”, which may perhaps be of some comfort to someone.

The turning on of the Leinster House Christmas lights was postponed on Tuesday last, as the Ceann Comhairle believed it would have been “inappropriate” to do it only one day after Jonathan Corrie’s body was found. The lights are scheduled to be turned on next week instead, a week or so after Jonathan Corrie’s body was found. It’ll be much more appropriate after a week. And by then a little festivity will be in order in the corridors of power, as the government will be able to congratulate itself on having dispatched the homelessness crisis yet again.

 

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 7 December 2014

In ancient Ireland, there was no such thing as an ‘illegitimate’ child

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Historian Catherine Corless, whose work led to the uncovering of the Tuam Babies story
(pic: Connacht Tribune)

WHEN you see something you like in a jeweller’s window, you don’t just reach your hand in and grab it, do you? No, you know you can’t have it, so you just look at it, admire it, and move on.

That little metaphor has proved one of the more durable memories of what passed for sex education in the 1980s in Tuam, Co Galway. It lingers as much for its sheer opacity as anything else: what exactly were the jewels supposed to represent? Is anyone else suppressing a schoolgirlish giggle?

There are better-known examples. When dancing with a boy, leave space for the holy spirit to pass between you. And if you’re obliged to sit on a boy’s lap on the bus – for want of a seat, obviously, not for want of anything sinful – always put a sheet of newspaper down first.

Nowadays we look back and laugh at all this, wondering how any of us escaped it with even a relatively sane attitude to sex and relationships (and occasionally secretly worrying that perhaps we didn’t).

Then we remember that it was this same culture that punished women for the iniquity of having sex outside marriage, by ostracising them, incarcerating them and taking their babies away from them.

It was this same culture that decreed the sins of the mothers should be visited on the children, even going as far as a gross dereliction of the most basic duty – that of keeping a child alive.

It was this same culture, too, that bundled young girls, barely out of puberty, into convents – and often not because they showed any aptitude for monastic life, but because no other economic purpose could be found for them. There they might spend the rest of their lives suppressing their own native instincts to fall in love, to mate, to raise children and grandchildren. And if some of them lost their minds under the burden, who cared? They were locked away already. They couldn’t do anyone any harm – anyone except other people’s children, that is.

Our family moved to Tuam in the 1970s, around ten years after the closure of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, where 796 children died between 1925 and 1961.

Locals remembered the Home children, and described them trooping down the Dublin Road to school together. The particulars of these luckless children’s lives were not known, or at any rate not discussed. What people remembered was the pity.

I can’t answer for what a rural education at the hands of a religious order was like in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when the Home babies were going to school. But in the 1970s and 1980s it was anachronistic.

We were taught everything by nuns – not just home economics, languages and catechism, but secular subjects such as science, mathematics, history and of course sex education.

The blueprint for Catholic education had been written by Pope Pius XI in 1929. “Far too common is the error of those who, with dangerous assurance and under an ugly term, propagate a so-called sex-education,” he wrote.

When historians of the future ponder the narrative of 20th century Ireland, they’ll be thinking a lot about sex. It dominated the religious, social, political and even psychological landscape – our social mores, our laws, our relationships, our mental health, our attitude to children. For so long we’ve had the name of being a nation made twisted and sour by repressed sexuality that you could say sex has, perversely enough, ruined our reputation.

For various reasons – and we’ve been debating the reasons for decades – Ireland maintained a strictly ascetic Catholic line on human sexuality for years after other nations dropped it. Sex was for procreation, and procreation was for marriage. Outside those parameters sex was the original sin, and an omnipresent and omnipotent evil.

But it was really only an evil for women. If a woman broke the rules, she was cruelly punished; if a man broke the rules, he somehow disappeared. There isn’t a trace of a man in the stories of the Magdalene laundries and the various Mother and Baby homes around the country.

And even if a woman did all the right things – cajoled a fellow to the altar and did her conjugal duty by him (taking care not to enjoy it obviously) – she still had to be ‘churched’ after giving birth.

Combine those Jansenist attitudes with our distinctive historical demographics, and you get a very unwholesome picture. In 1926, as Diarmaid Ferriter reveals in his book ‘Occasions of Sin’, 72% of men aged 25-43 were unmarried, and 53% of women. In 1966, meanwhile, we had both the lowest marriage rate and the highest marital fertility rate in Europe. That’s an awful lot of apparent celibacy, and an awful lot of babies. Either no sex, or sex without family planning – just as the church wanted it.

And yet as we now know, some of the people promulgating all this shame about sex were themselves engaging in the most shameful sexual practices against children.

And how many of the pregnancies among ‘inmates’ of these institutions were the result of abuse or even incest? Could that explain the uncanny absence of men from the story? And will we have to wait another 50 years to find out?

What many people don’t fully appreciate is just how recent this all is. To anyone born after about 1980, your doddery old stories and mine about the Catholic stranglehold on society sound practically antediluvian. The rest of us, one way or another and whether we like it or not, are a product of those times.

In 2006, the government and the Crisis Pregnancy Agency commissioned the first study of Irish sexual health and relationships, which included historical figures showing just how recently attitudes changed.

In 1973, 71% of people believed pre-marital sex was ‘always wrong’; by 1994 it was down to 32%. Similarly, in 1961, the year the Home closed in Tuam, births outside marriage were 1.6% of the total; by the year 2000, they accounted for around a third.

Contraception didn’t become available until 1979, and then only on prescription. Homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1993. Civil partnerships, including same-sex unions, were given legal protection only in 2011.

Just by way of taking the long view, it’s worth looking at the far more liberal and inclusive society we lived in before church and state colluded in taking the whole business over.

The brehon laws were famously pragmatic on the subject of sex, allowing for as many as ten different types of relationships, even including the union of levity – to wit, the marriage of two lunatics. In none of these circumstances was there any such thing as an “illegitimate” child.

As the late Patrick C Power wrote in his brilliant little book, ‘Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland’: “All children born to a woman, no matter what the circumstances of their conception, were legislated for and their rights recognised.”

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that from that position of healthy establishment realism, we somehow ended up with the horrors of the 20th century, with unwanted children severed from their mothers and fathers, neglected, abused and, ultimately, laid in unmarked graves?

Ireland travelled a long road to become so damaged. And we still have a long road ahead before the damage can be repaired.

 

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 15 June 2014

Bubble trouble

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Enda Kenny: almost proud of the housing shortage

IF you’ve ever bid at an auction, you’ll know how quickly things can get out of hand. One minute you’ve got a sensible €40 in mind for a slightly bockety smoker’s chair, the next minute there’s a competitor. Someone else wants it. At all costs, this enemy must be defeated. Higher and higher you bid, scenting his fear on the wind. At length you secure your prey, and your rival returns to his cave hungry. You have won. You have spent €150 on what, now you look closely at it, is less a chair than a high-rise development for woodworm.

Maybe that’s what happened last week, when 67 Upper Leeson Street in Dublin sold at auction for €2.2 million. The guide price was €1.3 million, and three bidders had been snapping at one another’s heels, until a young professional businesswoman suddenly emerged from the undergrowth and ran off with her quarry. Reports said the whole affair took less than a minute. When you want something, you want it.

There were two main reactions to the story. This first was a sort of breathy excitement because, even after all that’s happened, we can’t stop ourselves being infatuated by houses worth €2m and the people who can afford them. “An Aga! Cornicing! Suntrap patio! Wonder who she is…” When it comes to property, we Irish are a walking Country ‘n’ Western song. Property is the bad lover that cheated on us, made a fool of us and threw us over, but we’d take it back in a heartbeat.

The second reaction was hand-wringing, as onlookers gathered to point and marvel at what looks undeniably like a giant bubble rising over the Dublin property market, and to remark: “Is this really happening? Again? Seriously?” It’s as if the past six years were a nightmare, and a generation of Dubliners woke up to the sound of someone still shouting in their ear: “Quick! Buy now before it’s too late!” Meanwhile, outside the capital, onlookers continued to muse on how long it might take before we too could sell our houses for more than the price of a garden shed.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was over in America talking the whole thing up. “If you had 30,000 three-bedroom detached houses in Dublin you’d sell them all in a week,” he told a New York audience. “That’s the pent-up demand that’s there.” He sounded almost proud, as if a shortage of shelter were a good thing.

Property experts later clarified that 30,000 new homes would actually represent about two years’ demand, rather than one week’s, given that only 30,000 homes were sold throughout the entire country last year. But as we know, it is becoming more and more important to attend to what the Taoiseach meant rather than to what he actually said, and with that in mind, the experts fell in behind the gist of Kenny’s remarks.

The lie of the land is that property prices in Dublin, which is where the few jobs are, are rising vertiginously. Some people might describe them as “overcorrected” – probably the same people who use “over-refreshed” as a euphemism for falling-down drunk. But average disposable income is falling, and even if it weren’t, the banks aren’t lending.

A large cohort of young people has found out – as they knew they would – that a 450-square-foot balsawood apartment in a boom-era tenement isn’t the best place to raise a family, so they want to move. And they can’t. Unless you’re a public servant, it’s probably not worth your while starting the paperwork for a mortgage. Meanwhile, thousands of homeowners are trapped, unable to sell up – not even to find employment – because the price their house would fetch wouldn’t cover the loan on it.

And while all this is going on, there is a small cohort of wealthy investors out there snapping up “bargains” all over town. Homeowners and would-be homeowners everywhere can only stand and watch themselves being squeezed out.

In response to the property impasse, people are renting their homes now at a higher rate than ever before. This is supposed to be a good sign – it means we’re getting all European about things. John Moran, secretary general at the Department of Finance, this week questioned people’s abiding need for three-bed semis and urged us all to consider renting. Yes, yet another plea on behalf of renting by someone who doesn’t rent. You can’t help thinking the subtext is not that we should all be renting, but that the Lower Orders should be renting.

There are several problems with renting, not least of which is that someone has to own all those rented properties, and the idea of creating another wealthy landlord class doesn’t have much appeal in this country, for obvious reasons. And while the banks have shown themselves generally disinclined to evict people who can’t pay for their homes, landlords have no such compunction. In any event, Dublin rents are also rising rapidly, and outside Dublin, where they’re still falling, there’s no work.

The government has been working on measures to correct this menacing state of affairs and be seen to have a plan. The aim is to increase the number of houses being built to 25,000 (from 8,000) by 2016, and to generate 60,000 jobs in construction. Some favourable terms for developers are proposed, such as lower levies and a halving of the social housing requirement to 10%. Social housing, it has been decided, is nothing more than a tax on development, and those levies won’t be needed any longer now that local authorities have the property tax, which will shortly be collected from 500,000 homeowners. Developers must be licking their lips.

Nama chief executive Brendan McDonagh this week counselled caution in respect of the rise in Dublin property prices, saying that what we’ve learnt from the past is that it’s impossible to predict the future, or words to that effect. It’s hard to know whom the warning was aimed at, though. Was he urging restraint on the part of property speculators? Or was he advising us that it’s not realistic to expect a return to the haphazard egalitarianism of the boom, when anyone from a captain of industry to a forklift driver could end up with a quarter of a million in equity?

Not that it matters much. Once a nation of property lovers, always a nation of property lovers, whatever happens in the housing market. You can knock us clean off the property ladder, but you can never take away our right to spend the afternoon poring over other people’s light-filled kitchens in the property pages.

 

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 23 March 2014

Coastal flooding and the labour of Sisyphus

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PIC: Carsten Krieger (carstenkrieger.com)

ISLAND life. That’s what the Loop Head peninsula has been like, on and off, since this ferocious year began less than six weeks ago. Island life, but without the grants, or the social welfare bonus, or the NCT exemption.

Loop Head is a pretty peninsula, svelte enough to show off the sea on all three sides at once. It’s green and pastoral and quiet, but it feels at times like the wildest place on earth. Two scrawny roads lead to it, and both of them have been obliterated by the sea twice so far this year, cutting us off from the rest of Ireland.

At the beginning, it’s like the first few hours of a power cut – all pre-industrial novelty. “When was the last time we played Cluedo by candlelight?,” you say cheerfully, as if forgetting that actually you’ve never experienced the slightest temptation to play Cluedo at all.

In the first 24 hours after being marooned, people get a quick kick out of disrupted routine – lighting big fires, running around to friends’ houses with baked goods, catching up on their correspondence, laughingly declaring a republic. Community spirit – always strongest in remote, weather-beaten places like this – makes everyone feel better. The locals gather rubbish, clear stones, sweep up kelp, check on their neighbours.

In the following few days, disaster tourists begin arriving in their cars to stare into the sinkholes that divide us from them, and to commit the scene to their cameraphone’s memory, if not their own. Hyperbole is thrown about like flotsam – “disaster”, “tragedy”, “devastated” – though nobody died. Yellow county council machines move things around inscrutably. Still no road. Gradually the worry grows from a niggle to a panic. How long are we going to be left like this?

Even in view of the wreckage, twice over, of local infrastructure since the start of this year, probably the worst thing to happen to west Clare was the flooding of Cork this week. Once a city has fallen, that’s it for the rest of us. Cork is at once deluged with promises of hundreds of millions of euros, and the people of west Clare fear being left tiptoeing through the seaweed in perpetuity.

In its report to government last month, Clare County Council estimated that the January storms did €23.7m worth of damage along the Clare coast – almost €3.5m of that here in Kilbaha village alone. Then last weekend happened. Meanwhile, environment minister Phil Hogan has allocated €15m for flood relief nationally.

The R487 (as absolutely nobody calls it) veers too close the sea on the south coast of Loop Head at Kilbaha, and was turned into rubble by Storm Christine in January. The county council spent hundreds of man-hours crudely patching it up so the stranded inhabitants of the western end of the peninsula could get back to their normal lives. And we did, briefly.

But in the storm and high tides of last weekend, the sea simply reclaimed the road in full. The only signs of human endeavour left on Sunday were the remains of the council’s temporary concrete barriers, tortured and broken to bits as they tried to hold back the waves.

Similarly, along the north coast of the peninsula, the thoroughfare was made impassable by beach stones and gabions – the rock-filled cages that are supposed to keep the sea away from the road and are now instead strewn all over it.

No one is asking how much money and time have been spent already on the Sisyphean task of repairing all this damage. No one really wants to know, because it has all come to nothing. What people do want to know is how much more money we can honestly expect will continue to be thrown at this problem in the vain hope of making it go away.

It’s worse elsewhere, of course, which isn’t helping. In Kilbaha, there are two public businesses (our only two) close to the water line, but very few houses, most villagers having settled on higher ground at least 200 years ago. But east of here, an estimated 1,200 acres of land are under water, and there is worse to come. Meanwhile, Limerick city, submerged and angry, is deeply and vociferously regretting the property tax. Then there’s Cork, still at a loss over whether to blame this government, the last government, or St Finbarr.

Clonmel, meanwhile, is dry – at least for the present. The town that suffered the worst flooding in recent years is now the proud owner of a €40m flood defence scheme, completed in 2012. By happy coincidence, Clonmel happened to be in the constituency of the then minister with responsibility for the OPW, Martin Mansergh. He has professed himself very proud of the flood defence system, and understandably so. Local paper the Nationalist reported this week that only one town centre home was damaged by rising water.

The government had been working on plans to spend €45m nationally on flood defences, but is now considering increasing that sum to €100m over the next five years. Bear in mind that a capital investment of €100m would just about cover the long-talked-about flood defence system for Cork city.

“By comparison with other European countries, we are not as well prepared,” said Brian Hayes, junior finance minister with responsibility for the OPW, when asked about flood defences this week.

Hayes is at pains, though, to make us understand that there isn’t enough money to do everything. “The idea that we can protect every acre of land in the country is a lie and a pretence and that has to be struck on its head,” he told RTE Radio 1’s Today with Sean O’Rourke this week.

So we can’t all be saved. We probably all knew that already. What we don’t know is who gets the right to decide who is saved and who isn’t. Choices are going to be made, but who is going to make them, and on what basis? Who has the strongest claim on those rapidly dwindling funds?

Meanwhile, back here on the Atlantic seaboard, communities are bracing themselves yet again as another angry mob of low-pressure systems makes its way eastward to beat us up next week. And in many of those communities, people are quietly starting to wonder if maybe things would be better for us if they were worse.

 

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 9 February 2014

The power’s out: time for a searching and fearless moral inventory

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EVEN now, after all these days without electricity, can there be anyone out there who has at last memorised their MPRN number?

The MPRN, like all those numbers corporations give you, is supposed to be the number they remember you by. ESB asks for it every time you ring them, blue-fingered in the darkness. “Hang on,” you want to say, “this MPRN thing was your idea. If it’s such a handy way for you to identify me, why don’t you remember it?”

You don’t say that, of course. No one is mad at ESB because there’s been no power since Wednesday. Everyone knows they’re doing all they can. Honestly, you’d sooner sit in the dark for a week than demand that men be sent up poles in a hurricane. Still, though, it’s a niggle, the MPRN business; it’s something of a match in the powder barrel.

At any rate, ESB makes it clear almost immediately that it’s not interested in taking calls from people wanting to shoot the breeze about corporate identification – or even about when the power might come back. The recorded message on the ESB’s fault and emergency line says as much: “Are you actually in the throes of a heart attack, your legs trapped under a fallen electricity pole that’s also on fire? No? Thought not. Please hang up then,” or words to that effect.

Things get so old school in a power cut. If you’re lucky enough to have an open fire or a range, you’ve got one warm room in the whole house – just like the old days! Boiling Golden Wonders on an elderly Rayburn, you begin to wonder if there mightn’t be space on the walls for a picture of John F Kennedy and a Sacred Heart.

You play Cribbage by candlelight. Yes, Cribbage. Cluedo, it has emerged, is not an ideal game for two players: “I didn’t do it, so it must have been you”. And Monopoly is well known for causing even more damage to a relationship than three days spent alone together in post-apocalyptic conditions. Cribbage keeps things nice and courtly.

You forgot the advice – such good advice – always to charge your mobile phone before a power cut, but after three days (or more like three hours) everyone’s iPhone has died anyway. Mobile communications begin to seem like something we flirted with briefly – something we can now question the wisdom of, in hindsight.

The landline, improbably enough, stays working throughout the whole misadventure, which is lucky. Things are bad enough without having to deal with Eircom, and anyway they have something in their customer charter about not conducting repairs when there’s an R in the month.

There’s no light, no heat and ultimately – when the last drop from the inoperative pumping stations reaches you – no water. More importantly, there’s no radio, no television, and no internet. That means no access to the news. I repeat, three days without news. In the darkest hour of this, when you hit rock bottom, you have to admit you’re helpless, conduct a searching and fearless moral inventory, and turn yourself over to a higher power. There are nine other steps too which you must look up on the internet when the electricity comes back.

Two important notes to self after half a week of powerlessness: one, find out if they’re still making wind-up radios; two: write the MPRN number on the wall beside the phone.