FERGUS FINLAY: No mention of the word poverty in €116bn national development plan

Finola McLoughlin against the backdrop of lost childhood campaign posters. Pic: Patrick Bolger

When tens of thousands of children are lost, there doesn’t seem to be any problem at all, writes Fergus Finlay.

ONE hundred and sixteen billion euro; it’s a fierce amount of money. When I’m typing it out, I have to check the noughts several times to make sure I have it right. It’s the sort of sum that’s impossible to get your head around.

But it’s what we’re going to invest in our future over the next few years. Just to give you one more figure, that’s €24,360 for every man, woman, and child of us. Sounds pretty daunting when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

But I’m up for it, aren’t you? No matter how challenging, isn’t it worth making that investment to see a country that will be full of bright, happy children, well-nourished and educated, living in safe surroundings and growing as they should?

Isn’t it worth taking the risk to make sure that Ireland becomes a country where people have decent choices and real opportunities, where crime and anti-social behaviour gradually becomes a thing of the past, where the darker bits of our history (even our recent history) become a fading memory?

The only problem is, that’s not what the money is for. It’s for bright shiny things like a metro and more Luas lines, new roads to everywhere. We’re going to invest in schools, especially third-level schools, to make us even more competitive (not necessarily to enable our young people to break out of whatever trap they’re in now). We’re going to have loads more public private partnerships, to enable rich people to invest in the schools and colleges we need.

It all comes together in a very impressive, 109-page document called the National Development Plan. It’s 109 pages in which, oddly enough, the word poverty isn’t mentioned once. The idea that it might be possible, necessary even, to invest a small proportion of that enormous amount of money in things that might help to break the cycle of poverty doesn’t appear to have occurred to the authors of this impressive plan.

I’m not against bright, shiny things. But when you suddenly realise that we can actually afford stuff (at least that our Government is telling us we can afford the sort of investment that can really make a difference), surely it’s time to stop and ask ourselves what are the areas where we’d really like to make a difference. If we really want to build a better future for everyone, where’s the right place to start? Is it with motorways and metros, or is it by ensuring that kids get a better start?

That’s why, in Barnardos, we’ve launched the Lost campaign. We’ve used some of a legacy we got from a man who left a lot of his money to charities that work with children to try and make a simple point.

The ad I hope you’ll see, and the posters we’re putting up, all tell true stories. They’re stories of children who are lost. The reason we’re telling them is because many of us know that terrible feeling when a child suddenly disappears. Even when it only lasts a couple of minutes it can cause a gut-wrenching sense of panic.

But when tens of thousands of children are lost, there doesn’t seem to be any problem at all. No sense of outrage, no sense of a different political priority.

If a child starts behind in school, they will stay behind. If they can’t read at the same level as their classmates, and can’t catch up, they’ll be much more likely to drop out early. They’re the kids at risk of getting involved in gangs, or being accused of anti-social behaviour. When it happens in their early teens, the end result can be a lifetime of dependency on social welfare, perhaps of trouble with the law, of difficult relationships. And they’re at risk of becoming the parents of the next generation of kids who drop out early because they started behind. And so the cycle continues.

You can’t break that cycle with a metro, even one that costs €3,000m. But you could begin to break that cycle by investing €20m in a team of dedicated community nurses whose job it would be to make sure every new-born was visited five times in their homes in the first two years of their lives. Or another €20m in making sure that Tusla has the resources to offer struggling families decent family support.

These are the sort of tiny investments that we now know we can afford — and they would begin to make a hell of a difference. They’re not all we need to do by a long shot. But a prosperous country, willing to invest in a cutting edge future, shames itself if it chooses to leave some behind.

Things like home visits, or free school books for every child, aren’t just necessary and desirable. They’re a no-brainer.

It costs millions to repair damage, and a fraction of that to prevent damage being done in the first place. Keeping a young person in secure care, for example, can cost a half a million euro a year — with no guarantee of a good outcome. But putting decent preventative programmes in place, that can help keep kids in school and away from the care system, can cost around €5,000 a year per child. It’s nonsense that we don’t seem willing to make those sorts of investment.

The National Development Plan does contain a commitment to extra childcare places, but the emphasis it puts on childcare as a contributor to economic growth, as opposed to the growth of children, would make you weep. The plan promises — again — that there will be a cross-government early years strategy published this year.

Let’s hope that will be the place where finally we begin to see real action and real investment, because there’s surely no excuse now. In my day job, we work day in and day out in communities that were entirely by-passed by the Celtic tiger — except to the extent that dual carriageways were built around them or through them.

THOSE communities were crushed by many of the cutbacks of the recession — cutbacks in income supports and in public services right across the board. And there is little or no hope to be found for them in our new emerging prosperity.

A metro simply won’t cut it. And there’s something fundamentally unfair in the fact that the communities that have suffered the most in the last 20 years, that have watched rising tides come and go while they remain firmly anchored to the bottom, are barely mentioned in a plan that promises a really bright future for the rest of us.

Daily, we see parents — often mothers alone — struggling. We see children doing without. We see children waiting for help. We see what successive governments refuse to acknowledge. That we are failing another generation of children.

There’s a real chance now. A new generation is being offered a new vision of what new prosperity can do. But it will be worth nothing if, at the end of it all, we’re still a country in which children have to do without. All that will mean is that another generation has squandered its opportunity. And another generation of children will be lost.

When tens of thousands of children are lost, there doesn’t seem to be any problem at all

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