News Comment

Saturday 22 October 2016

When bashing culchies, our media do not let facts get in the way of the story

Farmers are not milking the third-level grants system and Sarah Carey is tired of the relentless tide of anti-rural whining

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Farmers are not milking the third-level grants system and Sarah Carey is tired of the relentless tide of anti-rural whining
Farmers are not milking the third-level grants system and Sarah Carey is tired of the relentless tide of anti-rural whining

It's hard to explain sometimes to my journalistic colleagues how their presumptions and prejudices on major policy issues are so wildly alienating to anyone who lives in the country.

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Culprits last week, naturally, include the good old Irish Times. While it beat us over the ideological head with the inclusivity stick on everything from the transgendered to immigration, its casual ignorance of rural matters demonstrates the persistent gulf between urban and rural perspectives.

First up was an article on Tuesday announcing 'Students from Dublin least likely to get third-level grants', with a helpful sub-title, '72% of CAO applicants in Longford get Susi award, compared with 46% in Dublin'.

"Of course", I said to myself. "That's because rural incomes - including non-farm incomes - are much lower than urban incomes."

I think country families on smaller incomes are amazing to fund not just the fees and the books, but the massive cost of rent and maintenance that Dublin families escape.

The grant doesn't even start to cover the true costs, but rural people have always made huge sacrifices for education. It's a cultural issue.

But that analysis wasn't in the article. There was one brief acknowledgement that regional income disparities "could be" relevant. "Could be"? How could they not be?

Instead, the old chestnut about how farmers and the self-employed are mysteriously successful at securing grants was hopped in.

For good measure, a blatantly political aspect was pursued, explaining that Labour's Ruairi Quinn tried to have assets included in means tests when he was Education Minister but Fine Gael "blocked" the proposal. The sub-text said: "That's those rich farmers in Fine Gael protecting their nest egg."

In other words, a value-free set of facts about grants was presented in a way that reinforced a prejudice about farmers exploiting the grant process. Imagine trying that game with say, the profile of people with HIV. The reason you shouldn't include assets in a means test is because assets aren't income.

What did Ruairi Quinn want? For farmers to sell an acre every year to pay the rent for the flat in Dublin? Or flog the tractor? Should a plumber sell his van and tools to pay fees? Should the shopkeeper barter his stock to buy books?

Of course not. You might as well ask Dubliners to sell the front garden as a parking space or the back garden for a mews to pay for college.

In response Tom Doyle of the IFA was called up by Newstalk (my employers) to explain how farmers were stitching up the system.

He had to point out the blindingly obvious, that the average farm income is €24,000 and the stereotypical image of the rich rancher farmer is hopelessly crude. That should have appeared in the original presentation of the grant data; but I guess the diversity handbook doesn't have a chapter on culchies.

The same attitude led to an hilarious endorsement in the Cantillon column of a typical anti-rural Green Party policy. Tom Kivlehan is the Green spokesperson on transport and he doesn't like buses driving up the quays causing "traffic chaos".

Cantillon referred to "hordes" of buses "crawling" towards Busaras, "snarling up" traffic, while Kivlehan complained about buses "dumping" their passengers on the side of the road.

Hey, Mr Green and Cantillon, that's me on that bus. I'm not snarling up anything and I'm not being dumped anywhere. I'm leaving the car back home in Enfield, Co Meath, zooming in on the bus lane and nimbly disembarking at my destination - O'Connell Bridge - from where, with environmentally sound zeal, I walk to my work place.

But all the Greens and the Irish Times see is a horde of culchies clogging up their quays and getting in the way of other "road users". You wouldn't catch them using language like that about immigrants.

Anyway, their solution is a bus station on Conyngham Road. From there, Kivlehan suggests we take a "two-minute" walk on a not-yet-built-bridge to get a Luas up the quays. Two minutes? That's auctioneer speak. More like 10. Eh, no thanks. Sure I'd be meeting my friends under Clery's clock by the time I'd finished foostering at those Luas ticket machines. And of course you're from south County Dublin, Mr Kivlehan! Of course you are!

Tell you what, why don't you just build a big wall around the M50 and park the bogmobiles there? Then dig a tunnel, like they used to do for servants in big houses to keep them out of sight of the gentry, and we can walk in from there, without inconveniencing other "road users".

Finally - and here nearly all media is at fault - is the indulgence of water rates protesters who insist that paying for water directly is the fourth sign of the apocalypse. Only very rarely, and only in passing, do journalists point out that hundreds of thousands of Irish people have been paying for their water for decades.

Last week I was in Cavan, where my uncle, Paddy Brady, is a member of the Ballymachugh Group Water scheme, set up 40 years ago by Paddy Gill, a native of the Aran Islands.

They installed water meters 10 years ago, whereupon consumption dropped by 25pc. Users are charged 90c per 100 metres cubed and are grateful for the clean water they get. They choke on the suggestion that delivering water and disposing of sewage should be "free". And for those 40 years, their general taxes have been subsidising the processing of urban sewage and building that Luas - and they haven't complained.

Ireland is a small country, and bar occasional safari trips to festivals, our journalists will have to correct their persistently skewed view of the land.

Sunday Independent

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