Three short questions, but a long gaze into Ireland’s ideological fault lines.
“Have you a job?”
“Are you a sponger?”
“Are you on the dole?”
These were some of the questions fielded at protestors who disrupted a Fine Gael meeting in Cork this week.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described the protestors’ disruption as “profoundly undemocratic”.
Arising from audience seats and speaking without invitation, the protestors declared how austerity only worked for a “slim minority” and called for “a break with the European Union and its militarism”.
Some of the people attending the Fine Gael meeting then met the disruptions with those three short questions.
The setting to one side, they are refrains we are all familiar with. The tone of those rhetorical questions is something we are all, also familiar with.
When we use that word “sponger” in Irish society, what is it we are trying to say? The urban dictionary defines it as a person who “lives off of others.”
What about the tone and the attitude behind the phrase?
It expresses disdain for someone who needs help making ends meet, assuming that they’re partly, if not wholly to blame, for their compromised, and apparently deliberate, financial position.
But to describe a person, who is in receipt of social welfare as a “sponger”, is a very simple interpretation of a kaleidoscope of scenarios.
In truth and accuracy, who actually receives social welfare payments and for what?
New mothers, who do not find themselves in jobs where their contracts offer them six or nine months of full pay, rely on the State maternity benefit.
There is the new paternity benefit too, if your partner has just had a baby, or if you’ve adopted a baby. The benefit is paid for two weeks, for the time being.
Then there’s child benefit — paid monthly to anyone who has a child 18 or under, who is in full-time education.
Is every parent in Ireland a sponger?
There is also a benefit available to farmers and fishermen, those whose livelihoods are at the mercy of things like our capricious weather and equally capricious market forces — a market where you can get a kilo of carrots for 50c one week or two for the price of one the next.
There is the State pension, both contributory and non-contributory. The contributory one gets paid to people over 66 years of age who have made enough social insurance contributions over the course of their working lives.
As for the non-contributory State pension, this one is a means-tested payment, for example, for people who’ve been at home minding kids and grandkids their whole lives, a job for which there was no defined benefit pension scheme.
Would we describe all pensioners, in receipt of a social welfare payment, as spongers?
We have an extremely narrow view of who actually fits the bill of someone in receipt of “benefits”.
In that narrow, desperately inaccurate view, we squeeze in that multi- dimensional, multicoloured kaleidoscope of scenarios.
There are carers’ allowances and disability benefits too, and a bit like that always-free, always-alluring parking spot at Tesco’s front door, they are not situations many of us would willingly trade our able-bodied lives for.
And then there is the one-parent family benefit.
Lone parents in Ireland have among the worst living standards in Europe, with one in five surviving below the poverty line.
There are 218,817 of these lone-parent family units in Ireland, 86% of whom are headed by women. Of all households with children in the country, they have the highest poverty rates.
And in Ireland, one refrain seems to be ringing true at least, the poor are indeed getting poorer. In 2012, one in 11 working lone parents were living below the poverty line. By 2017, this had increased to one in five.
But back to Cork and that disrupted meeting over the city perhaps directly electing its own mayor.
People came down hard on the protestors, they were being described as anarchists by some, and being asked by others if they had bothered running in our upcoming elections.
We are all at the wrong dog fight.
The day before this meeting, the latest homeless figures had been released.
Where are we now with that ongoing problem? We have 10,305 people living in “emergency accommodation.” Another record high.
But where was the show of outrage?
The week before, we had climate protestors stage as sit-in on O’Connell Bridge. But unlike the homeless figures, their actions drew vocal criticism. Their disruptions were described as disrespectful to other users of the city.
It seems we can be more offended by the manner in which some people protest, rather than by what they are protesting about.
In the event, and hope, that these kinds of protests and disruptions are non-violent, what is it about them than offends us so much? And why are we not more collectively outraged about 10,305 people living in institutional poverty or the fact that our species is facing an ever-looming existential threat?
Every second spent condemning the manner of a person’s non-violent protest, is a second less spent looking at the real cause of the problem and a second less spent working towards a solution.
In this country, we all know that standing on either side of an ideological fault line is a futile and dangerous place, but so too is being “expertly civil-tongued.”
Change-makers are rarely met with open arms, and their rhetoric is rarely civil-tongued, nor for the fainthearted.
Criticise the manner in which a message is delivered, that is your democratic right, but let that not distract us from solutions.