Five artists of the Apollo were the ones who got their hands dirty

The celebrities brought the media, but they also brought the activists, writes Michael Clifford
Five artists of the Apollo were the ones who got their hands dirty

Come on home, Bono, all is forgiven. Perhaps it is appropriate that in the week Bono’s band announce a new tour, the value of celebrity endorsement has been brought home to us all.

Apollo House is to be vacated today. Since December 16, the office block in the centre of Dublin has occupied the national consciousness, dragging the issue of homelessness to the front of the political agenda.

Would Apollo House and all that has flowed from it have been achieved without celebrity endorsement?

Singers Glen Hansard and Damien Dempsey, filmmakers Jim Sheridan and Terry McMahon, and actor John Connors were to the fore in the Home Sweet Home group which occupied the building. They brought celebrity wattage and artistic credibility to the campaign. Other celebs lent their names, but the five artists of the Apollo actually got their hands dirty.

The celebrity wattage was not confined to the creative world. Mattress Mick was on hand with some of his merchandise once the building was stormed, although he could claim some celluloid credit after the recent movie bearing his name.

The celebrities brought the media, but it’s fair to say they also brought the activists. There were reports that up to 4,000 people offered their services to the group to make Apollo House a home for dozens without one. Would that level of interest, not to mention €160,000 in donations, have come about without the presence of the stars?

None of which is to take away from the work of the volunteers who are stars only to those closest to them. Having visited the building last week, I can attest that it was fused with an energy that exuded compassion.

They gave of their time or holidays to fashion, for a few short weeks, a home rather than a shelter for up to 40 individuals, many of whom would have been accustomed to being treated as invisible on the streets of the capital. This was spontaneous civic engagement at its best, which tapped into something usually lost in the loud, angry, and entrenched views and politics that dominate in these troubled times.

The occupation kept pressure on Dublin City Council to ensure decent accommodation was available for all rough sleepers — and that would now seem to be the case.

Rough sleeping is the most visible element of homelessness and the element easiest fixed. More urgency should attach to the much bigger problem of those sleeping in temporary accommodation, most notably hotel rooms.

At the last count there were 7,000 people housed in temporary accommodation in the State, including around 2,500 children. This is little short of a national scandal, one which the Government has promised to end. Its housing strategy, published to much fanfare last July, contains such a pledge.

One upshot of the heightened profile of homelessness as a result of Apollo House has been that this pledge has been dragged back into the spotlight.

On TV3 last week, Damien English, the junior minister with responsibility for housing, twice reiterated that the targets for emergency accommodation will be met by June 30. His senior colleague Simon Coveney repeated the pledge on Tuesday.

This despite an increase in the number staying in temporary accommodation since last summer.

The focus on that target is bound to concentrate minds in the Government.

Should the summer roll around with children still being reared in hotel rooms, then political accountability must be forthcoming.

So in the round, Apollo House and its combination of celebrities and activists have done some service to the most pressing societal issue of the day.

All of which brings us back to poor old Bono.

He is the man who brought celebrity endorsement onto a new plane with his work in Africa. It’s safe to say that an unquantifiable number of human beings are alive today who might otherwise not be if he hadn’t shone a light on their plight.

And what thanks does he get? In many quarters in this country, particularly among those who describe themselves as being on the left, he is derided.

In the early days of Apollo, there were rumours that he might turn up to sing a song, and the general feeling was he could expect a very mixed reaction.

OK, some might object to his singing. U2’s music ceased to matter about 25 years ago, but celebrity burns a lot longer than talent. Others have an issue with the tax arrangements of his band, which hopped off to the Netherlands a decade ago to avoid paying big bucks.

So what? Was anybody interested in the personal arrangements of the cooler celebs who led the charge on Apollo House? These things are all secondary to the good that might be done by lending a face and shining a light.

What’s sauce for the Hansard celebrity goose is sauce for the Bono celebrity gander. Maybe the next time around he might show up and do a duet with Mattress Mick. Now that’s something that would have the whole country talking.

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