Arid Environment

Leaving people behind is stupid and yet we continue to do it

If I write about the GAA it’s from a position of abysmal ignorance. I hugely admire the organization for its social and community role and I know the history. Every year I get drawn in by some human story or other into aspects of the championships — the never-ending Mayo curse, the mystery of Biddy Early and her influence on Clare hurling, that sort of thing.

But the intricacies of the games and their appeal to an audience have always eluded me. I guess it’s because I was raised with an oval ball in my hands, but I would seldom watch a game of football or hurling just for its own sake — there’d have to be something else involved.

Sportsman turned writer, Philly McMahon spoke to Brendan O’Connor about changes in his native Ballymun wrought by the surrender grant. Philly is pictured here launching Saturday’s Darkness Into Light. See DarknessIntoLight.ie. Picture: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

So when I heard Brendan O’Connor introduces the legendary Dublin footballer Philly McMahon to his show last Saturday, I yawned. All I know about him is that he spent a number of years breaking Mayo hearts. That’s not much of a thing.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Philly McMahon is a deep, thoughtful and inspirational man. He didn’t just talk about football, indeed most of the interview was around a book he wrote some years ago called The Choice. I haven’t read it yet, but it came across as an honest account of the way two lives diverged. He acknowledges that he was saved by sport, while his brother John drifted into drugs, away from his family, and eventually into death.

McMahon was raised in Ballymun, and suffered his fair share of discrimination on that account. But it never diminished his pride in his own community and his football club Ballymun Kickhams.

Unintended consequences…

In describing the changes in his community he talked about something called the surrender grant.

Children playing in Ballymun in North County Dublin in 1969. The surrender grant in the 1980s accelerated the flight of families who had a stable income, leaving behind a poorer, less stable community.
Children playing in Ballymun in North County Dublin in 1969. The surrender grant in the 1980s accelerated the flight of families who had a stable income, leaving behind a poorer, less stable community.

That was a scheme introduced in the mid-’80s. Essentially, if you were a local authority tenant and had a full-time job, you were offered a grant of £5,000 to buy your own house. Not the house you lived in, but somewhere else; £5,000 in those days was a handsome deposit for a private house, and all you had to do in return was give back your house to the local authority that owned it.

We did that.

I worked for the Labor Party in government at the time, and we introduced that scheme. It had two purposes and we all thought it was a great idea. Firstly, it gave people who had been tenants all their lives a real shot at getting to own their own home. And secondly, it enabled local authorities, at the time desperately strapped for cash, to replenish their stock of houses. The scheme was popular and no opposition figure thought to criticize it.

They should have. That scheme, well intended as it was, had socially disastrous consequences. Especially in Ballymun, Darndale and Tallaght, virtually every family with a stable income left and bought elsewhere.

Houses were immediately filled by people and families with a range of challenges of their own — mental health, single parenthood, drug addiction.

An article by Vivion Kilfeather in the Cork Examiner on February 11, 1987, detailing an ICTU committee's proposals on housing and building, including a call to review the social impact of the surrender grant.
An article by Vivion Kilfeather in the Cork Examiner on February 11, 1987, detailing an ICTU committee’s proposals on housing and building, including a call to review the social impact of the surrender grant.

In very short order stable communities were replaced by transient and broken communities with no support.

…and no lessons learned

I’ve always regretted that decision, although it was well meaning and we weren’t criticized for it at the time. Listening to Philly McMahon describing its consequences — which coincided as it with the explosion of drugs in disadvantaged communities in the mid-’80s — at least, I thought, some of us learned the lessons. Not, sadly, in time to undo the damage.

In Ireland, it seems, we spend a lot of time announcing that lessons must be learned, and then failing to learn them.

I could fill page after page by listing off some of the decisions made in haste and repented at leisure. To take just one recent example, the lack of transparency at the heart of the Zappone debacle was repeated almost to the letter in the row surrounding Tony Holohan’s appointment to Trinity College.

The Zappone and Holohan rows weren’t, in the scheme of things, of lasting importance. The losers were the people at the heart of them, done in by an unnecessary lack of openness.

And the current turf row may not go down in history as a political game-changer either. But it has some of the characteristics of stupid and counter-productive political decisions that have left lasting scars in the past.

There was terrible communication, of course. I still don’t know exactly what Environment Minister Eamon Ryan is trying to achieve, or how far he really wants to go. There is cynical and pandering opposition involved this time too — I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard opposition figures bleating on about how we have to address climate change — but not now, not like this.

But whatever was intended, the decision to get rid of turf fires raised all the issues that add up to bad politics if they’re not properly thought through.

Age, class, and elitism in the turf war

It raises identity issues — the split between urban and rural is a powerful component. It raises class issues, because it is poorer people, often older people, who live by the shed out the back with enough turf for the winter. It raises elitism issues — there’s something deeply patronising and offensive about government politicians telling ordinary people that once they invest enough in insulation they won’t have to worry about fuel poverty. It raises deep and abiding cultural issues — I never cut turf, but I have friends of my own age for who it was the only way they spent “quality” time with their fathers when they were growing up.

But there’s something even deeper at the heart of it. One of the reasons the surrender grants never became really controversial was that the people who benefitted from them moved on, and there was no one to speak for the people left behind.

Nobody to speak for those left behind

One of the reasons disability has never been sufficiently high on the Irish political agenda is that there is no-one to espouse for the people left behind in that debate either. The “people left behind” are never properly represented or heard.

There are people being left behind in the climate change debate too. They’re not just being left behind, they’re being “othered” — condescended to by some, used as political fodder by others.

We talk about climate justice, and just transitions. We don’t do much about it, just talk about it. And then we say, “retrofit your home and you’ll be grand.”

'Philly McMahon is a deep, thoughtful, and inspirational man.'  writes Fergus Finlay after hearing him on RTÉ radio with Brendan O'Connor.  Philly is pictured hoisting the Sam Maguire after Dublin broke Kerry's hearts in the 2019 All-Ireland Football final replay.  Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
‘Philly McMahon is a deep, thoughtful, and inspirational man.’ writes Fergus Finlay after hearing him on RTÉ radio with Brendan O’Connor. Philly is pictured hoisting the Sam Maguire after Dublin broke Kerry’s hearts in the 2019 All-Ireland Football final replay. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

I heard it said recently — I’ve said it myself — “it’s time we all agreed to pay more for our fruit and vegetables, so we can grow local and reduce the carbon footprint.” But there are people who can’t afford to pay in euro when cents in a supermarket chain will help to feed and nourish their kids. There is no point in lecturing people about their responsibilities to the climate when day-to-day life is an unending struggle. In fact lectures like that are cruel.

We’re doing it once more. In an important debate about necessary change we’re gratuitously leaving people behind. Leaving people behind is stupid and counterproductive. It’s the way to create lasting damage. And of course, it’s how we prove yet again that there are some lessons we seem to be incapable of ever learning.

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