TERRY PRONE: In the wake of People of the Year Awards, three bodies earn praise

IF I TELL the truth about being a judge for this weekend’s People of the Year Awards, they’ll never invite me again.

But then, I’m not sure I’d be able for another outing.

It’s great television. Human stories of courage and community response. This year, AJ McCullough won for rescuing the entire Attah family when he encountered their car half into an icy canal, like the bus at the end of the movie The Italian Job. In that movie, Michael Caine pauses, looks at the wavering bus, which contains a stolen fortune, and does his Cockney mutter: “I’ve got an idea...”

AJ McCullough didn’t wait for an idea. He just yanked open the back door of the car and started to pull the family free.

He was just one of a list of individuals demonstrating grace under pressure, including Jackie Kelly, who cared for her cancer-stricken mother while studying for her Leaving, in which she won 120 points more than she needed to secure a place on her chosen college course.

My first boss, Bunny Carr, was the man who came up with the idea for the People of the Year many years ago, and presented several of the TV programmes. This year, the presenter was Grainne Seoige, and the show represented great PR for Rehab and RTÉ, with a substantial payoff for sponsor Quinn Healthcare.

My problem was with the judging. I was the newbie. The other stellar adjudicators had all done it before and knew the system. I figured it for an easy-peasy job of picking winners who would be clearly miles ahead of the next contender. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The shortlists presented impossible choices, and half an hour into the procedure, I was in a major sulk because the others wouldn’t go with someone I thought belonged in the Guinness Book of Records for generosity of spirit. Half an hour later, one of the other judges, who shall be nameless, but who is a gorgeous TV presenter, did her own sulk when the same thing happened to her.

While these awards register individuals, community groups and organisations making a major contribution to Irish or international life, and while other award schemes pick out and celebrate, for example, entrepreneurs or businesses regarded as playing a blinder, I have three contenders for awards that don’t yet exist. (And, lest you start thinking bad thoughts, all the organisations mentioned are managing fine without retaining me or my company to help them with PR).

The first is the St Vincent de Paul Society. Like Madonna, it never goes away. Like Madonna, it reconfigures to meet changing need. My father was one of their volunteers, and I remember in my teens when I hit the stage any right-thinking student arrives at, when nothing but complete destruction of The System and public humiliation of every member of The Establishment will suffice, I regarded the Vincent de Paul as (wrongly) keeping poor people from falling through the floor of Irish life. It kept them from starving or sending their children to school barefoot. On the face of it, that might seem a positive outcome, but when you’re gripped in the unforgiving radicalism of the teen years, it isn’t. The correct way to see the VDP or SVP or whatever is their preferred acronym, is to view it is as a vile postponement of the inevitable, a covert supporter of the status quo, a paternalistic patronage damaging those who receive and promoting the petit-bourgeois self-interest of those who give. Those of us on the left wing who knew Utopia would happen, come the revolution, were permanently furious at the Vincent de Paul for — as we saw it — mollifying the misfortunate who would otherwise be lining up to make Molotov cocktails.

The revolution didn’t come, of course, and the Vincent de Paul didn’t go, and some of those one-time radicals are now its clients.

“The only good thing about the days getting shorter, now autumn is here,” one friend recently muttered, behind a concealing hand, “is that nobody sees the Vincent de Paul people when they visit your home.”

The Vincent de Paul occasionally makes mild criticism of actions they see as working against the interests of the poor, new and long-term, but for the most part, they are apolitical. They do good by stealth. Never mind that the new wave of impoverishment should never have happened and that they should not be needed. It has and they are, and thank God or the Force or whatever you believe in for their crucial presence. And for their lack of proselytising. And above all, for the decent discretion with which they do their work.

The second body deserving an award are MABS. The Money, Advice and Budgeting Service. I’ve come across countless stories of couples frozen in terror over their mortgages, their negative equity, their lost jobs, school uniform costs and that simple daily challenge called survival, who have had sad sense made of their situation by MABS, who have also gone to bat for them with banks to find ways to make bankruptcy less of an option. When we talk about people being under pressure as a result of the economic meltdown, we never include mention of the people who work for MABS, who serve a function somewhere between financial social worker and psychologist, and the nature of whose work means that all day, every day, they face one distraught individual or family after another. Most of us, getting up on a Monday morning, have reservations about the week ahead. The MABS people must have dragged themselves out of the scratcher this morning with a justified sense of impending misery. Or maybe not. Maybe they know how important each of them is. Maybe they understand that circumstances have given them and their role an unprecedented significance in the lives of others.

The third organisation that should win an award is the National Lottery, which manages to do its job without sickening self-congratulation and without scandal. We’ll gloss over the fact that, yet again, they failed those of us who bought a Euromillions line this weekend. I had that €150 million so beautifully allocated. I swear to you, I went happily to sleep on Friday night with a spreadsheet of spend in my head. The SVP were getting €70 million, for starters. Not from generosity, but as guilt prevention, in the spirit of the line in that old Tom Murphy play where the hero wants to win the Sweep in order to give the cash to his mother “To pay her off.”

That left me with €70 million, (unlike the American lotteries, where people win $150 million and find out too late and often in court that they owe a vast chunk of it in tax). You’d be filled with admiration for me over the problems I solved for other people with that money, while keeping just enough cash to get me out of debt and living in Spartan comfort.

I’ve never actually won as much as a fiver on a scratch card, but the Lottery allows me to be prospectively happy and gobsmackingly altruistic once a week. A cheap dreamtime for me and half the nation.

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