FERGUS FINLAY: Don’t blame single mothers when youngsters run riot and cities burn

MY esteemed colleague Terry Prone made the point in this space yesterday that the hardest question to answer, in the face of the riots that engulfed Britain last week, is why.

Why did you do it? Why did it happen? How did so many people, without apparent leadership or motivation, go so crazy at the same time?

There is no easy answer, was Terry’s conclusion. And of course, as she usually is, she was right. Trying to get inside the mind of someone from a respectable background who commits an act of mindless violence, seemingly on the spur of the moment, is impossible. Most of the time, the people who did it have themselves no clue as to what motivated them, or why they acted in ways that are often entirely out of character.

I wasn’t among the crowd that burned down the British Embassy in Dublin in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. My absence was just an accident — I could have been, and I have no idea what I’d have done if I were. Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people were in Merrion Square that night, and among them were people who went on to have distinguished careers in the public service — teachers, nurses, civil servants. They threw stones, burned flags, attacked the gardaí, and eventually managed to break through a flimsy security perimeter and set fire to the building.

The crowd had gone to protest the unprovoked killing of 13 civilians in Derry the previous weekend, and things got totally out of control. I’ve spoken many times since to people who were there and, to this day, they find it inexplicable. The anger just boiled over into hatred, and that hatred was uncontrollable. Everything that got in the way was attacked.

At least in that case there was a focus for the anger. The riots in Britain may have been sparked by a single incident but the uncontrollable, copy-cat nature of the rioting, and the diversity of the people caught up in it — many of whom have wrecked their own lives in the process — gives rise to no easy explanation.

That doesn’t prevent some of our commentators from getting on their hobby horses. I heard the economist Jim Power on radio musing that the liberal agenda we have all been slavishly following for years has led to a collapse in authority — here as well as in Britain. That made me sit up and take notice, I have to say.

There was me thinking that indeed there has been a collapse in respect for authority in Ireland. But, in my simple way, I had been assuming that perhaps it was all the crimes committed by people in authority — churchmen, politicians, bankers, developers, rich people, respected people — that had undermined respect for authority among those who have nothing. For all the headlines (such as the one in yesterday’s Irish Examiner) about clampdowns on social welfare fraud, we have yet to see one about a real clampdown on some of the depredations of the rich and powerful. And headlines like that might go some way towards restoring respect for authority.

For another opinion-former, Kevin Myers, the issues are simple — race, immigration, and the lack of father figures. He wrote: “It is social lunacy, delinquency turned into state policy, to encourage women to bear a population of young males without fathers. Yet that is what our two islands have been doing in a weak-minded, abject capitulation to the feminist ideological dogma that men are really redundant in the family.”

For John Waters, race isn’t an issue at all. For him it’s just about women, and about a state policy that refuses to punish women who raise children on their own (having driven all the men away).

Myers is clearly wrong, and self-serving, about the race and immigration issue as a cause of the riots. And yet he is right to point out that we have never had a properly-constructed immigration policy in Ireland, and that can lead to an undercurrent of racism in any society.

For years we simply allowed no inward migration to Ireland. Then, when we needed them, we went and sought people to come here from abroad. And, to a considerable extent, we built our economy on them. We even arrived at a point, during the height of our construction madness, where we were importing thousands of central European labourers to build houses for the thousands of central European labourers we were importing. And if tumbleweed is blowing through those housing estates now, and most of the labourers have left or are on the dole here, that’s hardly their fault.

If we concentrate on the parenting point, the awful thing about both of these opinion-makers, Waters and Myers, is that they are right at a certain level. The biliousness of their language, and their willingness to target one group of hate-figures, does irreparable damage to the case they make. But there is a core point about young people growing up without significant and positive male influences in their lives that has to be taken seriously.

Blaming their mothers is just stupid, however. I work in housing estates where a great many women are raising children alone. I’ve yet to meet one who really, in her heart of hearts, wanted it that way. They worry about their children constantly because they love them. They struggle with lives that are difficult, stressful and sometimes out of control. They live with loneliness. Coping alone is no one’s idea of a life choice, and to argue that it is is just blind.

POLICY, however, is a different thing. I know from our own work that if a girl, especially a young girl, gets pregnant, staying in education or going our to seek training or work can be the hardest thing to do. There is still stigma attached to being a single mum in the eyes of a great many employers, and very few schools are adequately set up to support that situation. It’s a lot easier to drift into a life of dependency, and we don’t do nearly enough to discourage that.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to discourage dependency. The right way, I my view, is to put a range of choices in place — proper childcare support, good and affordable early years services, decent training programmes that aren’t just centred on pretty menial skills, but also build confidence and resilience. Proper systems of family support that help to maintain family links and to fill the significant parenting gaps are crucial too. And so is a national determination to chase and “incentivise” the missing fathers, who haven’t been driven away but in too many cases have chosen to abandon their responsibilities.

In short, if better parenting is the answer — and there is no denying that — then attacking mothers can play no part in developing that answer. It’s as true now as it was in every generation — children raised with love, and with a proper sense of right and wrong, end up being happy contributors. Getting back to that point for all our children requires a reasoned and honest debate. Slogans or scapegoating should play no part.


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