Thursday 21 November 2019

Our new commandment: Shop thy neighbour. . .

Loud music and barking dogs have been identified by Dublin's local authorities as the primary sources of friction between neighbours in the capital. Several Dublin councils have released details of the most common causes of rows between citizens who live next to one another, and noise pollution topped the list.

In truth, however, talk of raucous pets and blaring stereos paints an unduly simplistic portrait of contemporary Irish life. These days, the defining sound of the suburbs and indeed the sticks is actually undetectable to the naked ear -- it's called whistle-blowing.

As the recession has worsened and anger about abuses of public money has mounted, growing numbers of concerned citizens have been alerting the authorities to alleged social welfare fraud by their neighbours, relatives and acquaintances.

The State's confidential 'report-line' for accusations about benefit scroungers has never been busier and counter staff at welfare offices are also reportedly fielding an inundation of tip-offs. For many, the Christian commandment to 'love thy neighbour' has been superseded by a more pressing imperative -- shop thy neighbour.

The volunteering of all this private intelligence is paying considerable dividends for the State, as evidenced most recently by revelations about the extent of fraud among recipients of lone-parent allowance, a sizable swathe of whom are secretly living with partners.

Millions of euro have been clawed back following an extensive crackdown on deceitful claims by the Department of Social Protection, much of it in response to public reports. Between January and July of this year alone, the department received 2,328 anonymous tip-offs about co-habiting couples drawing lone-parent benefits.

To a large extent, therefore, this is a good news story. The economic shocks of the past three years have heightened awareness among the tax-compliant about the myriad ways in which they've been taken for mugs -- from above by public service fat cats and from below by benefit swindlers. Any improvement in the State's ability to combat raids on the public purse, no matter who the perpetrators are, is obviously welcome.

Nevertheless, it would be naive to believe there's no downside. Greater public co-operation with the welfare fraud squad is an expression of more than a newfound civic mindedness. It also reflects the deepening wells of jealousy, bitterness and resentment created by the recession, and the attendant feelings of rage and impotence. If information is power, informing on the neighbours seems to be an increasingly popular means of asserting one's powerfulness.

The social and psychological implications of this cultural trend are profound, and will reshape Irish life in ways we don't yet appreciate.

Throughout the boom, Ireland was depicted by some politicians, clerics and commentators as an unhealthily fragmented society, in which most of us neither knew nor cared about our neighbours. Today, many of us are developing a keen interest in what goes on behind other people's closed doors. But the use of this accumulated knowledge to incriminate our neighbours radically redefines the term 'caring and sharing'.

Apart from anything else, the potential for malice is immense, as curmudgeons, cranks and bigots are offered a tempting new weapon. If the Government persists in encouraging this new kind of neighbourhood watch, it would be wise to consider some counterbalance in the form of an acknowledged offence of false, malicious or racist accusation.

Ultimately, however, the real questions are for the citizenry rather than the legislature. Do we really want to live in neighbourhoods where nobody is trusted? Are we ready for a return to the valley of the squinting windows? If we casually brand others as criminal, are we ourselves entitled to a presumption of innocence?

Good fences, they say, make good neighbours. Unfortunately, in a world where everybody is assumed to be a con artist of some kind, we are as likely to find ourselves living next door to a snitch as a fence.

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