Pathologising poverty

My recent post about conditions in Ballymun mid-“regeneration” garnered quite a response. It surprised no less than it gratified me, because to someone familiar with Ballymun, those images of abject neglect are nothing new. Which, in a sense, encapsulates in microcosm the point I’m going to develop below.

Perhaps I was a mite pessimistic in that previous post. Just this week, small numbers of residents in the Sillogue area of the estate have begun mounting protests against Ballymun Regeneration Ltd.’s appalling mismanagement of the regeneration, specifically the rampant mission-creep of the Emerald Project development, which has forced elderly residents into marathon detours simply to reach the local shops.

Long-term, mostly elderly, residents in the few flat complexes still standing feel BRL is operating a strategy of coercion to force them to accept accommodation outside their preferred areas. One by one, families are being moved out of flats (BRL uses the ominous term “detenanting”), leaving recalcitrant residents isolated in deserted blocks, invariably within blackspots of anti-social behaviour. It’s a gambit typical of the local bureaucracy, and vividly illustrates the perils of resistance.

Earlier this year, residents received a thoughtful letter from Dublin City Council (or, as it’s known on this blog, the Labour-controlled Dublin City Council) informing them that repairs would no longer be carried out on the homes of tenants in arrears on their rent. The health, safety and welfare impact of that little triumph of liberalism upon old people, blameless young children, and families need hardly be enunciated.

Of course, the only issue exercising local politicians and the national media is the dispute between Pickerings and the TEEU, which has left most of the still-functioning lifts out of commission, despite the incompetent efforts of the army to repair them. Broken lifts were the absolute norm during the eighties and nineties, when hundreds of families depended upon them; it was never a headline-grabber in those days, however. No prizes for figuring out the motivation behind the establishment’s sudden pangs of sympathy for suffering residents (whose hardship is severe and very real, by the way.)

What I really want to address in this post is the thrust of several responses my images generated elsewhere on the web. These were along the lines that Ballymun’s woes were a function of demographics, of the “type of people” (whatever that means) who inhabit the area, a type whom no regeneration project could redeem or reform.

Sadly, this attitude is more prevalent than one might think (or hope.) It has been propounded in more diplomatic forms and more touchy-feely language by middle-class liberals for decades. It lingers within the give-them-horses-and-youthclubs approach which suggests that the natural inclination of the urban poor is to drink, fight and vandalise, and momentary distraction from those cherished pursuits is what they require to become model citizens.

Needless to say, this is all bullshit. There is no Ballymun Syndrome, so readily diagnosed by the concerned patricians of the chattering classes. People in Ballymun, as in every impoverished community, utilise their talents and energy in the most ingenious ways. Sporting and cultural groups have flourished there for years, and continue to flourish. What grinds people down is the constant and unremitting struggle against poverty, social exclusion and the state, with no prospect of respite.

It’s indisputable that many people in Ballymun lead miserable, unfulfilling lives. But they’re not miserable because they live in non-stakeholder-based community structures with low levels of social interaction. They’re miserable because they have no fucking money, no fucking services and are treated with flagrant contempt by the state at each and every level. No amount of psychobabble can, or should, be allowed to obscure the economic roots of that misery.

“Welfare dependency” is another favourite nostrum of the more plain-spoken liberal and outright conservative. The silent compact between state and recipient implicit in the disbursal of social welfare is either misunderstood or deliberately obfuscated by these tough-love merchants. The deal is that the state provides the recipient with the bare minimum to keep him/her and his/her family going, in lieu of training or local industry, with both parties fully aware that this can be revoked instantaneously should the recipient get uppity. By this expedient, the state hopes to buy the passivity of individuals and entire communities, and usually succeeds.

With the welfare state cowering before the wrecking-ball throughout Europe, and a ruling class giddy on the resumption of unrestrained class warfare, its most ambitious vanguard is beginning to wonder whether any provisions are off the table. This may yet prove its critical error. Economic intimidation is effective only when its victims really do have something to lose, other than chains.

In Ballymun, that balance may be approaching its tipping point. The deprived urban communities of Dublin are often overlooked as agents of struggle by an Irish left fixated on the (crucial, but perhaps irredeemably compromised) labour movement. But nowhere is the reservoir of human suffering deeper, nor its effects more keenly-felt, than in those communities. Bringing them to the centre of the fightback would not merely be politically expedient, but poetically just.

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7 Responses to “Pathologising poverty”

  1. Tomboktu Says:

    The Equality Studies 20th Anniversary Conference a few months ago had speakers from three other of those Dublin communities: John Bisset (on the platform) and Rita Fagan (in the audience) from St Michael’s; Kathleen O’Neill (audience) Kilbarrick; & Rory Hearne (platform) Dolphin’s Barn. I’ve become much more aware of those communities as (potential) agents of change in the last year or so. John Bisset’s book; the protests against the restructuring of the CDPs; and the human rights hearing about the standard of state-provided housing in Dolphin’s Barn. And I had noticed that a key to the election of Gino Kenny to South Dublin County Council was a significant increase in the voter turn-out in Ronanstown.

    With the strict separation of powers in local authorities, do councillors have legal power over repairs? I suspect that — legally — they don’t (which wouldn’t excuse them from not at least objecting to the City Manager.)

    • DublinDilettante Says:

      Strictly speaking, that would be an executive function, I’d imagine. Generally, though, DCC management will be heavily swayed by majority council opinion on anything other than a matter dictated by central government. When measures like this (and a boiler service charge hike a few months later) are passed without comment, it’s generally because the council didn’t object or didn’t give enough of a shit to even be aware of it. And that’s before you get into the realms of nod-and-wink stuff.

  2. C. Flower Says:

    Bravo, DD.

  3. Bill Tormey Says:

    Ask yourself the question – exactly how would you knock down and replace the flat blocks in Ballymun? Then look at the absurdity of your early assertions. BRL is trying to empty the flats, rehouse tenents and demolish the buildings. It is difficult to achieve due to the massive personal imposition on the lives of people but demands for security and guarantees of 24/7 safety for the remaining reluctant few are impossible to accomodate. Where would you go from there if you were CEO of BRL?

    • DublinDilettante Says:

      Forgive me if I’m wrong, Bill, but I thought the regeneration was there to serve the residents, not the other way ’round. It may be a personal defect, but I generally find the troubles of elderly, frightened, poor and intimidated people more compelling than the agonies of choice facing a CEO. I suppose that will always be the difference between our kind and your kind.

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