Tuesday 15 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Brave new Ireland just as cruel as the old'

The scandals of the past upset us, but we have to take responsibility for the horrors of our own era, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It sometimes seems our parents and their parents in turn - back to the creation of the Irish State - must have been cruel people.

How else do we explain the roll-call of horrors we've grown used to?

Last week, the roll call continued. We heard about the garda who was victimised, her life turned upside down in 1984, for becoming pregnant "out of wedlock".

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And we heard about the other garda victimised, his life torn asunder in 1982, for being gay.

They join a long list of cruelties - pick your own favourite horrors. The litany of lives casually squandered is wearying.

Institutions that presided over astonishing death rates among "illegitimate" babies.

"Laundries" where nuns punished "fallen women".

"Industrial schools" where kids were jailed and abused.

Politicians careful to ensure their legislation had the imprimatur of the Catholic bishops.

Children preyed on by those who claimed to protect them, the predators protected in turn by the very people who laid down the strict moral laws that relentlessly governed our lives.

In September 1982, three months after "Matthew", the garda interviewed on Liveline, was sacked for being gay, Declan Flynn was chased through Fairview Park, caught and beaten to death, for being gay.

Five young people, who claimed they were cleansing Fairview Park of "queers", were charged. Judge Sean Gannon directed that this "could never be regarded as murder". The jury convicted them of manslaughter, the judge gave them a token sentence, which he then suspended.

Famously, the young lined up in droves in May 2015 to vote away that old Ireland. Famously, they even came back from abroad, taking time out from their busy, exciting lives, to put the kibosh on Ireland's dark old times.

But everything - everything - that happened back then was for decades either explicitly sanctioned or placidly tolerated by the majority.

And there was nothing uniquely cruel about our immediate ancestors. There are shelves of books written about the dear and darling Dubliners, about the characters who enriched the city, about the kindness and ingenuity of the women of the tenements.

There are more books about the rural treasures who went to school through the fields, only taking time away from their sodalities to help a neighbour at calving time.

All of these were decent people who went to extraordinary lengths in their efforts to help those worse off, often in the midst of a terrible poverty of their own.

Those heartwarming stories of the old Ireland are true.

They are as true as the wonderful stories of the #hometovote people, enduring exhausting journeys to ensure the stake of common humanity was hammered firmly into the heart of that horrible old Ireland.

The old Ireland was capable of great kindness, while tolerating great cruelty.

And the new Ireland, with its great tolerance and deep sense of care, is as casually accepting of great cruelties as was any smug politician or arrogant bishop.

What are today's routine cruelties that we - including those wonderful young hashtag people - casually accept?

You may have your own list.

I believe that foremost among today's savage cruelties, accepted by a majority amongst us, is the psychological torture of thousands of people forced out of the housing market.

And foremost among the homeless are the children on whom we deliberately inflict severe psychological damage.

What's been happening is not a mistake, it's not a failure of particular initiatives - it's been going on too long for that. It exists because a substantial majority accept it should be that way, and many of them benefit from this.

Throughout human history, societies have always adopted sets of ideas - political, philosophical and moral ideas. Around these ideas, laws are framed by governments.

In framing these laws, the politicians are influenced by public opinion, and by whoever gets to whisper in their ears - be they bishops or corporate lobbyists.

The fact that unlicensed pregnancy or unapproved sexual feelings could cost gardai their jobs didn't exist in isolation. Gays were denounced from the pulpit as sinful; and from the legislature as criminal.

Such branding declared gay people to be odd, unnatural, dangerous. One of the Fairview Park killers justified his violence by saying he "heard" that "queers" "interfered" with kids.

Given the widespread acceptance of such prejudice, it wasn't a big leap for a judge to decide that some young men merely went a bit far in their public service of policing Fairview Park from the odd people.

Just as widespread beliefs justified terrible cruelties back then, so do other beliefs justify terrible cruelties today.

Let's first accept that long-term living in emergency accommodation causes lasting psychological damage. Children in particular are acutely aware of what sets them apart from their peers. The professionals say lasting damage is being done, and we know this is true.

Perhaps it's inevitable, unavoidable?

No, in housing emergencies of the past we reacted radically, we choose now not to do that.

The housing policy of Fine Gael is supported in its entirety by Fianna Fail. Every now and then, for the sake of appearances, FG and FF quibble about detail, but they're partners in government.

Almost two-thirds of voters consistently support these two parties, giving them a mandate for their cruelties.

The FG housing policy is based on class conflict and a religiously-strong belief that the level of shelter available, and the price of that shelter, must be decided by the free market, with minimum interference from government.

The class conflict is deliberately stoked up. FG leader Leo Varadkar divided us into two factions: "those who pay for everything" versus "those who want to pay for nothing".

Varadkar used class conflict in making his pitch to be FG leader. He created a "benefit cheats" campaign, even though he knew successful social welfare fraud is minuscule, and that the welfare system is effectively policed.

Modern capitalism couldn't function without a social welfare system to underwrite the fluidity of the workforce. But, Varadkar and his enablers cast social welfare as charity, abused by the poor.

This allows the branding of "those who want to pay for nothing", and who "game the system".

And this helps us accept that those forced out of the housing market are lesser people, who are hostile to our interests.

The housing crisis has been caused by corporate cornering of the market, state protection for "vulture" and "cuckoo" funds, failure to stop profiteering and to police landlord lawbreakers, concern for banking and the markets before concern for people.

FG/FF insists there's no crisis, the market will do the job if we incentivise builders and landlords.

Those who can't afford the market linger in unsuitable "hotel" rooms, from which they can be temporarily kicked out if there's more profit to be made from renting to concertgoers.

There, children know they've been marked out by the State as lesser humans, and, without perspective, they draw terribly damaging conclusions.

We look back 30 or 80 years and ask, "My God, how did they let that happen?"

No need to look back. Look around, and ask the same question.

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