Last Tuesday, a raft of political entities and agencies marked the first anniversary of the death of Jonathan Corrie.
He was a 43-year-old who died yards from Leinster House after a night sleeping rough on the streets. His life had been difficult. Like many of those who are traditionally classified as homeless, he had railed against forces that prevented him leading what most of us might classify as a normal life. His want was not for a roof over his head, but for help in dealing with the pain of living.
Perhaps more intervention might have opened up new possibilities for him. Perhaps there were forks on his road and he took the wrong option. His death was a shock, but not a surprise, to those who knew him. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of loved-ones, and of those who dedicate themselves to intervening with the most vulnerable, a premature end to life may be inevitable.
The proximity of his death to both the seat of parliament and to Christmas led to a mass outpouring of public grief. Many who would have hurried past him on the streets when he was alive mourned his death. Homelessness shot up the political agenda.
Provision was made to ensure that nobody else would die in the cold.
For some, it was all the Government’s fault. Wantonly or otherwise, there were attempts to conflate the issue of homelessness, as it affected Mr Corrie, with the ballooning problem of housing, which was resulting in increasing numbers of people being forced to access emergency accommodation.
Politicians shuffled to line up on the side of angels. Few wanted to face the reality that Mr Corrie’s demise had more to do with societal attitudes and priorities than with social policy, for which the Government was responsible.
One year on, many of the same people rushed to remember Mr Corrie in the context of the worsening housing problem. The anniversary of his death was repeatedly marked in the media.
In the Dáil, last Tuesday, both Gerry Adams and Micheál Martin referenced the occasion in the context of the housing crisis.
Other politicians referenced Mr Corrie in press releases.
Outside Leinster House, a protest over the housing problem had the memory of Mr Corrie as a centrepiece. Among those protesting were opposition politicians. The subtext was to blame the Government for the man’s death, as if the protesting politicians would have saved him if only they had been in charge.
The imperative was not to remember a man to whom many wouldn’t have issued a second glance, but to avail of the opportunity to have a go at the other crowd in the months before an election.
A postscript to the protest was the deposit of a Sinn Féin poster, and a flag from the Impact trade union, at the location where Mr Corrie died. In terms of crassness, it would be hard to beat that.
Make no mistake — the Government bears huge responsibility for the housing crisis. The current situation was foretold at least three years ago by those who knew, yet the Government was too busy with other matters.
Reports last week from both Dublin and Cork point to a problem that has not been grappled with. The Penny Dinners charity in Cork has had a threefold increase in its clientele in the last few years. In Dublin, 80 families are losing their homes each month.
The spectre of 1,500 homeless children, growing up in hotel rooms, without the facilities required of growing bodies and minds, is shocking and a terrible indictment of the current administration.
Yet, none of that had anything to do with Mr Corrie. His problems were not related to simply having a roof over his head. Nor was he the only person to die on the streets in the last year. At least three other men died in not dissimilar circumstances. Does anybody even remember their names?
Another whose death continues to be used for a quasi-political motive is Savita Halappanavar. The manner in which she is remembered invites one to believe that she was a martyr for Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion regime, as it existed at the time of her death.
The controversy that surrounded her death, as opposed to the facts, which were subsequently established, accelerated a change in the law. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which was introduced in 2013, ensures that a mother’s life takes precedence if it is in danger.
What is often forgotten is that the Government, at the time, was under an obligation from a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights to bring in such legislation.
Certainly, the Government had been dragging its heels, principally because of the political storm the legislation would kick up. In fact, it could well be argued that the initial controversy over Ms Halappanavar’s death gave cover to the Government to get moving on changing the law.
Then, the facts got in the way. The investigation into her death concluded that she was the victim not of the existing law on abortion but of downright poor medical care.
The Hiqa report laid out culpability: “The consultant, non-consultant hospital doctors, and midwifery/nursing staff were responsible, and accountable, for ensuring that Savita Halappanavar received the right care at the right time. However, this did not happen.”
Yet she continues to be held up by those campaigning for a change in the constitutional ban on abortion as somebody whose death could have been avoided if only the law had been brought into line.
None of which is to dispute the validity of the cause of those wishing for reform. But questions should be asked as to whether it is right and proper to continue to use a deceased person to make what is effectively a political point, long after it has been established that the law had nothing to do with her death.
There will be more of this stuff in the year to come, as the country remembers 1916. Various political entities will grab executed leaders and claim that they share that particular man’s vision. Compared to the tragedies of recent years, this stuff is trivial, but it is instructive.
Watch as the various parties try to claim lineage to the visions of Pearse and Connolly, McDonagh and Clarke. The executed leaders are much-favoured among those who would use the dead for their own purpose. These men’s bravery is unimpeachable, but, more importantly, they were never sullied with the imperfect and messy business of actually having their visions made flesh in the exercise of power.
That’s the great thing about using anyone no longer with us to further a particular agenda. The dead have no voice with which to represent their own views.