Tag Archives: society

Apartheid has no place in a republic

The Connors family, subjected to a dreadful tragedy last week with the loss through fire of ten family members, were very much a part of my childhood and teen years. Every week, Mrs Connors and two or three of her children would call to my parents’ house in Churchtown where my mother made tea, buttered bread, poured glasses of milk for the young ones, and conversed woman to woman and mother to mother with Mrs Connors.

There was never a hint of anti-Traveller bias in our house. My parents would not have tolerated it for a second.

My father was a committed republican with a deep understanding of the words and ideals of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic for which his father went out to fight and for which his mother provided supports and a safe house for revolutionaries. He brought those ideals into his everyday life in the way he treated other people regardless of their religion or their social standing.

My mother was born in Ballinasloe, a town deeply associated with Travellers, at a time when Travellers, or Tinkers as they were known then, were very much part of the fabric of society, particularly of rural society. Regular association with Travellers was part of her life until she came to Dublin, and Mrs Connors was probably the first Traveller woman that she had the opportunity to meet and converse with regularly since her move to Dublin.

Even as a child it was obvious to me that there was a mutual respect there. And it rubbed off on my siblings and on me. The Connors family were Travellers in the same way as the Browne family was a chemist’s family or the Stokes family was a motor trade family. It was simply a fact.

The notion of inequality only came into it because of the circumstances in which the Connors family were forced to live.

Travellers relied heavily up until the early 1960s on their skill as tinsmiths, supplying buckets, jugs, basins and so on to households, farms and shops. The arrival of cheap plastic products wiped out that means of earning a living, just as the arrival of mechanisation onto farms wiped out their seasonal work as farm labourers and their trade as horse-breeders and traders.

Travellers were the victims of the ‘market’ in the same way as British steel workers today are the victims of the ‘market’. A once very useful community of workers and people rendered useless, overnight.

Both of my parents, now deceased, would be distraught at last week’s news of the killing of ten members of Mrs Connors extended family. And it was a ‘killing’, given the conditions in which they were forced to live – dumped on the wastelands in unsafe buildings, or harried from place to place when they provided better mobile accommodation for themselves. This was a disaster waiting to happen.

There are solutions to all of the issues around Traveller life and their relationship with wider society – and society’s relationship with Travellers. It should not take a half a century to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions, but it has, and no end in sight. The triumph of failure.

Respect and dignity come to mind as a starting place. Citizenship with rights and responsibilities come to mind – on both sides of the divide. Adequate homes whether mobile or settled, together with health services, education and access to training and work come to mind. The sort of things, in other words, that we demand for the settled community, some of whom are also failed by the State most often among the working class.

Like the working class, Travellers are as intelligent, as gifted, possess as much latent potential as members of any other social class. What they are denied from the earliest age is the opportunity to achieve their full potential, and consequently denied their due measure of happiness and prosperity. They are, just as members of the working class are, denied access to those instruments of advancement that are the preserve of the middle class and the wealthy, and instead thrown onto the scrapheap, and then blamed for the degradation imposed on them.

That is an insane thrashing of valuable human resources. Only a sick society would countenance this, and only an idiotic economist or a venal politician would go along with it, or worse still, promote it.

And to anyone tempted to bring up lawlessness on the part of the Traveller community as an ‘Ah, but’, let me just say this. ‘Go to Hell’, and on your way there cast an eye on every strand of Irish society, every social class, and tell me that lawlessness isn’t present there too. Tell me that white-collar crime hasn’t brought terror into people’s homes, or that rampant corruption at the level of the State and the political class hasn’t led to premature deaths of citizens in their thousands.

It is time to end this blight of perpetual failure as a society to resolve the relationship between Travellers and the rest of society and vice versa. It is not just for the good of Travellers, it is for the good of society, of ourselves as humans, to rid ourselves of this inhumane set of attitudes.

There is a far superior set of values laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

Apartheid has no place in that republic.


Another Time, Another Place – Alleviating The Housing Crisis

Providing adequate housing for all – a human right – is a problem in all capitalist societies where sensible solutions based on the notions of the common good and simple decency are discarded in the interest of speculators and landlords. Private wealth triumphs over human rights and higher human instincts, but more than that private wealth shoots itself in the foot, repeatedly.

Just as maintaining a numerically significant cohort in society in a state of permanent educational disadvantage and consequent inhibited development makes no economic sense at all, maintaining a significant number of individuals and families in a constantly precarious position with regard to housing makes no economic sense either.

With an ever-aging society where lower birth-rates do not provide a hedge against future demands for health-care or pensions, the idea that it makes sense to discard perhaps 20% of the population – potential earners – based on social class is simply insane. Further, stealing the potential happiness of men, women and children is simply naked brutality at play.

Homelessness brought about by repetitive capital-driven boom-bust is equally insane. It is impossible for those who are homeless to harbour any realistic ambition to seek and find satisfying and productive work or further education or training. Where they are eligible, decent human beings are forced to rely on social security payments or on the charity of strangers to survive. They are not allowed to advance their position, to be productive, to be healthy, to be even moderately happy, to contribute to the exchequer or to have dignity.

In 1970, living in a Notting Hill bedsit in London and with a baby due, my wife and I needed more suitable but affordable housing. Fortunately we lived within the Kensington Burrough Council area, and that council had an enlightened, pragmatic solution that worked.

It was relatively simple. Where a house lay unused, or where a landlord failed to maintain a house in proper order for existing tenants, the council had a procedure for taking control of those houses, carrying out any necessary refurbishment or repairs, letting the units to those on its housing list or to existing tenants, and using the rents to pay for the cost of any works necessary to render the buildings habitable and to a good standard. When the costs of works had been recouped the properties would revert to the owners.

The policy worked on a number of fronts. It provided additional quality housing to the council, it pressured landlords to maintain their buildings to a good standard and to ensure occupancy as opposed to dereliction, it enhanced the appearance of the urban environment, and it made use of existing housing assets to alleviate homelessness.

According to An Spréach housing action collective “…there are over 270,000 vacant houses, flats and apartments scattered around the country, and over 30,000 in Dublin alone”, and “There are over 90,000 people waiting on the social housing list in Ireland”.

There is a short-term solution. It was tried at another time, in another place, and it worked. It was not a permanent fix. One downside was the gentrification of the Notting Hill area a few years later – a boon for landlords and speculators. But there were some housing protections for tenants that made it more difficult for landlords to clear tenants out so as to profit from the property boom.

Adopting that solution runs up against an ideological problem of our own construction – the constitutional right to property. In this non-republic property rights trump human rights. But a creative approach could get around that issue pending a change in our constitution, preferably by scrapping it completely and offering the citizens a new constitution fit for a 21st century republic in which human rights trump property rights.

And it runs up against the problem of an institutionalised belief in local and central government and among the political class that capitalism rules, that no interference can be countenanced in the supremacy of capital to earn unencumbered profit regardless of social or human costs.

So, the homeless crisis is ideologically driven. Worse than that, it is fueled by a brutal indifference on the part of each of the three counter-revolutionary parties – Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil – to the suffering of a significant part of our population and to their under-development or, worse still, un-development.

That is why it is so vital to build a progressive alternative to brutish government dedicated to helping the disadvantaged to move towards not just prosperity, but also happiness, and dignity. Stable decent housing is a component of that.

It’s about humanity. It’s about society. And it’s even about the economy.

Education – Our 21st Century Murder Machine

Yet again, this time in an RTE Prime Time discussion on third-level education, the question of catering for the needs of Foreign Direct Investment has arisen.

In 1968, armed with a Leaving Certificate, and not a great one at that, I was hired as a trainee field engineer by Burroughs Machines, a huge US multinational competitor with IBM in the budding area of computers, but mainly still marketing electro-mechanical accounting machines. Apart from some experience of working with cars in my father’s garage, and the mechanical knowledge learned from that, I knew nothing about that field.

And so, Burroughs Machines booked me into their own training school in London, flew me there at an exorbitant price, paid for good digs with a local landlady for eight weeks and flew me home to start work. Six months later, they did the same, this time for the advanced course for a period of six weeks.

In other words, when Burroughs Machines wanted a new employee to be up to speed, Burroughs carried all of the cost. Every penny!

Now, the most profitable corporations in the world demand of governments such as ours that virtually all of the cost of training new staff will be borne by the State – in other words, by us. Not alone do they demand graduate level, but increasingly demand post-graduate degree level as a condition of employment. Not content with that, they now want these new workers to be ‘job-ready’, to have served an internship, at no cost to the corporation, so that the worker can sit at the desk or in the lab ‘ready-to-go’ on the first day of employment without any investment required by the corporation in any aspect of their training.

What a scam!

Worse still, programmes at third-level institutions are being changed, manipulated, distorted, prioritised, added-on, or else diminished or dropped to make space for specific corporate-friendly programmes with little apparent concern beyond the short-term requirements of transitory FDI corporations.

Third-level institutions have warped from being seats of higher learning into being ‘partners’ with FDI corporations, tailoring research programmes to suit the needs, not of the students or of the State, but of the corporations, usually here today and gone tomorrow and paying as little tax to the State as possible while here.

And even worse, at second level, students are now being shoe-horned into taking an ever diminishing range of subjects so as to provide raw material for third-level programmes that lead to those qualifications adjudged to be attractive to FDI corporations. Maths and science are the big buzz now, and the Humanities, for example, is the stuff of losers.

Never mind the different preferences, intelligences, interests, talents or capabilities of a broad range of students. Never mind the notion of the whole person, or the happy person, or the fulfilled person. Never mind the wider needs of a society of humans in all of its complexity.

Maths and science (and of course mandatory religion) are, it seems, far more important in Ireland today than history, or geography, or the various forms of art and design, or language(s), or the broader study of culture(s), or philosophy, or anthropology, or sociology, or the study of political ideologies, systems and practices. We are producing cogs for corporations at the expence of building a fully functional society fueled by knowledge, creativity and a little wisdom.

We are building our 21st century version of The Murder Machine, as Patrick Pearse described the British system of ‘education’ in Ireland, designed to build not a love of learning and the exploitation of each child’s particular intelligences and capabilities and interests for the benefit of the child and society at large, but to create functioning workers for the benefit of FDI corporations and local ‘entrepreneurs’ (another buzz-word) and obedient subjects for the State.

Nowhere in his seminal essay, The Murder Machine, published in 1912, did Patrick Pearse prioritise Logical-Mathematical intelligence over all others, nor did Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences (1983).

Gardner, like Pearse, was interested in the empowerment of the learner. His categorisations of intelligences were: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic, and he later suggested that existential and moral intelligence could be added to that list. We don’t possess just one form of intelligence, but each has her/his own unique combination at various levels from that list, and nobody, therefore, is unintelligent.

But our posse of senior civil servants in the Department of Education behaves like idiots, as does our Minister for Education, and most of his predecessors in that job. For them, the exigencies of the moment as they relate to the ‘market-place’ matter far more than the creation and maintenance of a properly-functioning society of by-and-large happy and fulfilled citizens, or the promotion of a sustainable indigenous multi-faceted economy serving the needs of the people instead of a temporary FDI low-tax low-cost (to them) economy.

Bad enough to be ruled by self-serving idiots, but worse still to allow ourselves to be turned into willing idiots by accepting slogans, buzz-words and carefully-spun built-on-quicksand concepts that serve only the wealthy and exploitative foreign corporations and local capitalists, and to do that at great cost to our children and young adults.

It really is long past time to wise-up and to put in place systems of learning that prioritise the long-term enhancement of the lives of children as they grow to adulthood and full participation in a happy and prosperous society. We are well capable of achieving that.

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