Tuesday 27 September 2016

Gene Kerrigan: Not the kind of stories one wants to see

In a land of 'stability', one scandal follows another. It's time to stop getting upset

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

From time to time, we indulge in moral panics. Usually, this follows a startling scandal unearthed by the media - and often it's RTE that does the spadework.

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They send undercover reporters into nursing homes or hospitals with hidden cameras. We see things that upset us - perhaps we see the old being tied down or beaten up.

Or we see hospital corridors that look like something from a war movie.

And it stirs our concern.

Again and again we read of a 91-year-old man who spent 29 hours on a trolley in Tallaght; or a 93-year-old woman who spent 29 hours on a trolley at Beaumont.

Just when you think the public health service has some kind of 29-hour torture fixation you read - as we did last week - of the 76-year-old woman who spent 30 hours in a chair before she graduated to a trolley on which to linger in misery.

And this upsets us.

For a time, we talk about how awful it is, the media tut-tuts, there will be some official follow-up, then the next scandal arrives and all the others slide inexorably down the memory hole.

Last week, RTE upset us again. This time it was the sight of children being put through dreadful stress and the State subjecting their parents to contemptuous treatment.

In a superb piece of journalism, RTE had these families record their experiences on video over a long period - the day-to-day reality of being homeless and living in a hotel.

Some might hear "living in a hotel" and think it's fine, but the evidence of what it's like for adults and children to live, eat and sleep in one room was shocking. The fact that it happens over months on end is disgusting. The State is deliberately doing this to children, knowing its effects, knowing the strain this puts on parents - it has been doing it for years and it will never stop.

Never.

Unless we do something about it.

So, last week we had a bit of a moral panic. "Obviously," the Taoiseach said, these "are not the kind of stories one wants to see on television or indeed hear about."

Indeed not, sir. Particularly when there's an election on the way and you're telling people they'd better vote for you or there'll be chaos.

The issue for this particular moral panic is what is known as social housing. Or, more precisely, the lack of it. It used to be called public housing or municipal housing. Whatever it's called, it's often treated as charity.

It's sometimes tacked onto private house construction, as a condition. The developers will grudgingly build social housing, like they're doing the State a favour. And they'll sometimes break their commitments and find a way to ditch the charity work if profits aren't large enough.

Municipal housing is not charity.

Municipal housing was part of the 19th Century reforms that followed the industrial revolution. Without state support for housing, education and health there wouldn't have been the mass workforce required by modern society.

We have arranged things in this society so that homes are speculative commodities. Some people - speculators and builders - get extremely rich out of this. Others - landlords - get very rich. Or, in the case of smaller landlords, moderately rich.

This pushes up prices and there are swathes of people who work hard but still don't earn enough to buy into this market. The State provides municipal housing as a form of indirect subsidy to business. Otherwise, there would be relentless pressure to push wages up to the point that would make many businesses uneconomic.

Rent subsidies work similarly - those who benefit most are the landlords. In a booming market, landlords can discard the lower earners.

We have - in the Kenny/Burton Government - people possessed of a truly remarkable ideological crudeness. They are intensely committed to market forces, to the point where they've virtually stopped the provision of municipal housing.

It offends their free-market principles. Since they came into office, the construction of municipal housing has gone through the floor.

Yet, the surge in homelessness surprises them, although they've arranged it. The surge in homelessness isn't a result of incompetence, it's a result of policy.

Then, someone dies on a doorstep. Or we're shown that - horror of horrors - middle-class people are increasingly among the homeless. People with the look and the accent of government ministers.

Good God.

Suddenly, there's a moral panic and the Government stirs itself and does something - but as a charity measure, avoiding any fundamental change in how we do things.

Fianna Fail is currently playing the left-wing card. Micheal Martin attacks Fine Gael's right-wing obsessions. And he's right - Fine Gael is indeed some notches to the right of Fianna Fail.

But it's a matter of degree. Through decades, they've taken turns implementing similar right-wing policies - Fianna Fail less ideological, more inclined to take note of which way the populist wind is blowing.

They truly believe it is their job to increase the wealth of a top layer, which will then invest in the market so that the wealth trickles down to the rest of us. It's a quaint 18th Century theory, and one of these centuries it may well work out.

In the meantime, the ideology requires state spending to be eternally narrowed, which results in OECD figures showing social spending in Ireland at 21pc of GDP (France is at 32pc, Italy 28pc, Spain 26pc, Greece 24pc and so on).

So, decades pass with the public hospitals in chaos. It's not incompetence, it's policy.

We stress children to the point of cruelty to keep the housing market ideologically pure. It's not incompetence, it's policy.

We are in economic recovery, with a Government that proudly offers unending "stability" - and 17.5pc of people born here live abroad (Poland is 9pc, Greece 6.8pc, Italy 4.3pc, Spain 2pc).

Irish Water is an inept attempt to privatise the water supply, following the ideological imperative to channel even more wealth upwards - a clumsy attempt scuppered by popular protest.

Communities organise charity drives to buy medical equipment that should be provided by the State. Relatives, friends and neighbours club together to send kids abroad for treatment they should get at home.

Homes and businesses are lost to floods because the State won't raise the taxes to provide the necessary flood defences.

And this in a country where the Government proudly boasts of recovery from recession.

This in a country where we gave away €9bn we could have kept if the Government didn't greet every ECB demand with servile acquiescence.

And all of this will go on and on and on. And every now and then we'll have our little moral panics.

In 1966, when the State was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising the pressing issues of the day included unemployment and emigration. There were so many homeless that the Dublin Housing Action Committee was about to come into being.

Every now and then, politicians would promise to drain the Shannon, to relieve flooding.

Fifty years on . . .

And 50 years from now, we will continue to have our occasional moral panics, when what we ought to do is stop whining.

There's no sense getting all worked up about these scandals. It ratchets up our blood pressure and brings closer the day when we will ourselves be rushed to an A&E to be left on a trolley for a day or two.

Might as well accept it.

Or change it.

Sunday Independent

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