Thursday 17 April 2014

Garda wife's story used as the first shots in an ideological war

The 'Irish Times' story only plays into the hands of those who deny there is hardship, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

As symbols go, a garda sergeant's wife who can't afford to feed her children because of the recession has it all. No wonder it was, for days, the most read story on the Irish Times website, with correspondingly huge interest on RTE and in social media, where it was plugged relentlessly as a damning indictment of the Celtic Tiger gone wrong.

Not everyone was wholly sympathetic. Some felt that those who bought houses at the height of the boom were getting everything they deserved; others wondered whether the country had lost the run of itself when people earning €75,000 -- or possibly €65,000, depending on which page of the Irish Times you read -- are now claiming to be victims. The wisest just smelt a rat and set about crunching the numbers, because, even after all the deductions, it was hard to see why this couple could not afford food for their children. The Irish Times said it was satisfied with the details of the family's finances, but did that mean readers had to take the Irish Times' word for it too?

Faced with widespread scepticism, Kathy Sheridan, who wrote the original story, laid out the family's spending in greater detail a few days later, as calculated by Mabs (the Money Advice and Budgeting Service). But not only did the extra details fail to answer the questions, they actually made things worse. Nothing was adding up. Literally.

The new figures showed, for example, that the family was spending well over €1,000 a week, a huge amount by any standards, including a significant sum of €200 a week on food. Anyone spending that much on food simply has no excuse to let their children go hungry -- and the other expenses were equally inexplicable. How, for example, were they managing to spend, every four weeks, an estimated €160-plus on telephones and other utilities and €240 on clothes and shoes when their children were, by their own account, going hungry? What kind of person would behave so irresponsibly?

It also listed "other expenditure" of €84 a week -- in other words €336 every four weeks -- without saying what this was.

If nothing else, the Irish Times story was a terrible advertisement for the financial advice service being offered by Mabs, whose representative, as quoted in the original article, "saw no way of getting their outgoings below €1,100 a week".

Say what? So spending €3,120 a year on clothes and shoes and €4,368 a year on unidentified "other expenditure" simply cannot be reduced?

This is a financial service which is run by the Citizens Information Board under the remit of the Department of Social Protection to help struggling families manage their debts, and it does not know how to help a family manage with a food budget of €200 a week when thousands of families do so on much smaller budgets? What exactly are these people being paid for if they cannot even do that? In many ways it was the most shocking part of the whole story. It may sound harsh to rake over a family's finances with a fine toothcomb in this way, but when you put your story out there -- like the garda wife or Joe Purcell, the actor who told Liveline last week of being arrested for shoplifting for food for his children -- then of course your words will be scrutinised. Especially when it involves such an emotive subject as children. That was the thing. The garda's wife didn't say she couldn't feed her children because she was spending €240 a month on clothes. That wouldn't have elicited so much sympathy. She told us her children went hungry because she didn't have money for food. As parents, that stirs the strongest possible emotions. Nothing could be worse than not having food for your children. The narrative would generate the most powerful visceral response from readers, and when it became apparent that there was more to the situation than met the eye, then naturally that sympathy would evaporate.

It's not as if there is a shortage of genuine hardship. People are hurting. Marriages have broken up under the pressure of the recession; suicide rates are rising. The soundtrack of the age is a silent scream of despair, and instead of helping, the Government simply launches new tax raids -- even, in what must be the final insult, on the properties which sunk them in the first place. These people should be encouraged to tell their stories, rather than bottling it up through pride; but it's only made harder to do so if the front pages of respectable newspapers are given over to stories filled with so many holes. As a telling fable of a generation still trying to maintain Celtic Tiger lifestyles on post-Celtic Tiger wages, and lacking the basic household skills which their mothers and grandmothers once took for granted, it could have been instructive. Instead it was served up as an example of actual "poverty", which not only insulted those getting by on far less, but played right into the hands of those who would want to deny that there is any real hardship in Ireland at all if this was the worst case that the media could find.

Far from being one family's personal testimony, it was blatantly political. The garda sergeant's wife openly declared that she wrote to Leo Varadkar about her situation "because every time I hear him on the radio, he seems to be very anti-public service -- as are all his backbench Fine Gael colleagues".

RTE was equally gung-ho. On Wednesday, Pat Kenny specifically raised the Irish Times front-page story with Joan Burton, Minister for Social Protection, asking whether this proved that "austerity has got to tipping point" -- though there was never any actual evidence that the family in question were suffering from austerity rather than, as was increasingly apparent, a property crash coupled with disastrous money-handling.

This story was trumpeted from the rooftops in advance of the forthcoming Budget. If the children of public sector workers are going hungry, then clearly there is no more fat to trim from public sector expenditure. End of. That's why they leapt on the garda's wife as their new poster girl rather than one of the hundreds of thousands of private sector workers who've been forced into unemployment, emigration, repossession and depression, and who would dearly love to have a "mere" €800 a week on which to get by, and certainly wouldn't use their unfortunate children as ideological pawns if they did.

Was the Irish Times duped by a crude propaganda stunt on behalf of the public sector unions? If so, it will need to sharpen up the in-house BS detectors in the coming months, because it's only going to get worse as the ideological battle over public sector spending hots up. It's going to be a long winter.

Sunday Independent

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