Monday 9 December 2019

The mirage of social cohesion falls apart

AS the gap between rich and poor in Irish society widened during the Celtic Tiger period, regeneration projects came into vogue as a way of tackling poverty black spots.

The regeneration approach was particularly suited to the Celtic Tiger era because it focused on constructing new buildings. For a political elite with close ties to the construction industry and a banking system awash with cheap cash, regeneration offered a way to channel public money into construction under the umbrella of social justice.

The Dublin Docklands project, arguably the most successful regeneration venture, was followed by projects in Ballymun and Limerick city.

In the Docklands, new apartment complexes aimed at urban professionals and state-of-the-art transport infrastructure lay at the centre of the development.

This building work was accompanied by smaller social regeneration projects designed to tackle the poverty experienced by established Dockland families.

The social mixing at the heart of the Dublin Dockland's vision has not been entirely successful.

Mary Benson's research on Dublin's north-inner city suggests older residents view their neighbourhood as a small, intact community with its own identity and values.

The middle-class residents of the gated communities of apartments and town-houses, however, see their apartments as an extension of the city centre. A place to enjoy youth and good times. A place to leave when they establish their own families. Even these residents complain of isolation at the weekends, saying that parts of the docklands are lonely and deserted.

The Ballymun and Limerick Regeneration projects were more ambitious and faced significant challenges. These projects were designed to completely re-vamp neighbourhoods in west Dublin and Limerick city.

However, these communities were so ravaged by drugs and gangland crime that agencies had to devote more attention to the social regeneration projects where they had less expertise. In Ballymun, it quickly became evident that the social problems which destabilised older housing complexes were sometimes simply transplanted to the shiny new housing developments built by the regeneration agency.

The regeneration project in Limerick was launched, inauspiciously, in late 2007. As the property crash toppled the construction industry in 2008, the Limerick regeneration agency quickly moved to re-orient the project towards social regeneration.

Debate has raged about the approach adopted in the city with its emphasis on relocation rather than building.

However, the social regeneration initiatives which focused on children, families and young people were arguably more successful. Disadvantaged kids were given the opportunity to attend summer camps, learn new musical instruments and play sports.

The increased numbers of gardai who arrived in Limerick as part of regeneration made a significant impact on the operation of criminal gang networks in the city.

Now that the age of regeneration is over and the age of austerity has begun, recriminations and reflections about these projects will begin in earnest.

However, this negative verdict may be a bit unfair. Some projects such as the construction of health and community centres, creches and playgrounds were desperately needed.

Ultimately, however, regeneration was a way for political elites to soften inequality, to convince us that the rising tide of wealth that emerged during the Celtic Tiger really could lift everyone out of poverty.

New buildings, Luas services and playgrounds were supposed to serve as testament to the fact that there wasn't just one lifestyle for the rich and one for the poor, that a socially cohesive Irish society did exist.

That dream, like so many other spawned by the Tiger's roar, now seems to lie in tatters.

Last week, a 51-year-old mother of one in Limerick was jailed for two years for selling illegal cigarettes. Her crime deprived the Irish Exchequer of much-needed cash.

However, there are many others in Ireland's political, business and banking elites whose actions also deprived the Irish exchequer of revenue and who will never see the inside of a jail cell.

Such inequities in the application of the law suggest that the two-tier society remains alive and well. It remains to be seen whether social cohesion can hold up in austerity Ireland without the softening impact of Regeneration projects.

Dr Niamh Hourigan is Lecturer and Head of Graduate Studies in Sociology. 'Understanding Limerick: Social Exclusion and Change' is published by Cork University Press

Irish Independent

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