FERGUS FINLAY: The decent people at the bottom will save us, not the indecent at top

LAST Friday evening, at the bottom of Grafton St, a remarkable thing happened.

A homeless man had been crouched there for most of the afternoon, writing a poignant message with coloured chalk on the pavement. “Once, I was like you,” it said. “A home, a family, a future. Now, I need your help.”

It was good handwriting. Neat, colourful. No misspellings. Whatever this man’s history, he wasn’t one of the 30% of young people from disadvantaged communities who leave school too soon, unable to read or write.

As he crouched and worked, a paper cup sat in front of him, one of the cups we all buy our lattes and our cappuccinos in these days. Every now and again, a passerby would drop a coin or two into the cup. Less frequently, there might be a moment of conversation.

Then, it was time for him to leave — to go to wherever he calls home for the evening (and I’m really sorry I don’t know where that is). He went over to a volunteer who was standing nearby — a volunteer who had given up her afternoon to shake a bucket to collect money for Barnardos. And he emptied his paper cup of coppers into her bucket.

“Maybe,” he said, “that might prevent some youngster ending up like me.”

You keep learning lessons, don’t you? You keep meeting people who really matter — and what makes them matter is how they feel and think. They don’t have to have wealth, or status. There’s just something about them, some level of understanding that almost defies understanding.

That was the most dramatic thing (if that’s the right word) that happened to us during our collection, but, all weekend, I kept meeting people who really matter. Because they get it.

Collecting on the street can sometimes be a dispiriting business. People who don’t have it to give, or who, for whatever reason, don’t want to give, tend to pretend that you’re entirely invisible. They can’t, or they won’t, look you in the eye.

So they bustle past, or they take their mobile phones out of their pockets as they approach you. Anything to prevent you thinking they’ve made a conscious choice not to give.

I totally understand that — God knows, I’ve done it myself to collectors for charity. But what amazes me is the number of people who do give — often apologetically that they haven’t got more to give. I found two days of collecting on the street not dispiriting at all, but actually entirely uplifting.

Last weekend, we were out collecting whatever we could for Barnardos. All this week, we’ll be encouraging people to “dress up funny for money”. We’re doing all these things for the same reason as every other organisation in our sector is doing them — to keep our services alive.

In our case, the challenge is the never-ending effort to equip children with the skills they need to break the cycle of poverty, through education and through highly skilled family support. That effort has become much more of a struggle in recent years, solely because our economy is crippled by the policy failures and mistakes of the past.

But even though it means we have to cut our cloth accordingly in the short term, and that hurts, we will succeed eventually — and do you know why? Because there are so many people willing to help. There are those who give, in their thousands. And there are thousands of others who volunteer their time and effort.

They volunteer by shaking buckets in the street; by taking part in treks and tough walks; by dressing up funnily and holding events where everyone gets to make an eejit of themselves; by organising golf classics, or buggy pushes, or cycling for hundreds of miles across the country; and by stepping out of the corporate world and spending time changing other people’s lives for the better.

I could fill a column with the things people do, even though many of them are under all sorts of pressure themselves. It’s people like that who will get us out of this mess. It’s people like that who deserve the best our politicians have to give.

I wasn’t going to write about politics this week, because it’s hard not to feel upbeat when you keep meeting so many people who are genuinely inspirational.

But some of the weekend commentary about the challenges facing Ireland in Europe, in its total cynicism and preening self-regard, really knocked me back on my heels.

After the European summit last June, I wrote here in the Irish Examiner that there was a lot of hard graft ahead, even though the Government had secured a massive and significant breakthrough at the summit.

The summit was crucial, I wrote, “because it meant that Europe has changed direction. Of course, there will be many rearguard actions before the details of the agreement are worked out, and, of course, we won’t get 100% of what we’d like when it’s all over.

“But the pendulum has begun to swing decisively away from the one-sided austerity programme.” But, on Sunday, I read this from former Senator Eoghan Harris, in the Sunday Independent: “Last June, Enda Kenny began a personal PR campaign, promising bank debt relief on the basis of nothing more than verbals from a few EU ministers… Eamon Gilmore, the leader of the Labour Party, backed the Taoiseach to the hilt in selling the vapoury verbals of a few EU ministers. Last June, Gilmore described the deal that never was as a game-changer.”

ONLY a fool or a cynic would describe a formal EU communiqué, signed by 27 heads of government, as “the vapoury verbals” of a few ministers.

Eoghan Harris is no fool.

But his contribution, as cheap and nasty as it was, was mild compared to the extraordinary decision of Eddie Hobbs to use the Wall Street Journal to undermine his own Government.

Hobbs, described in the WSJ as a financial writer, finished his diatribe this way: “So, while Time magazine and others eulogise the plucky leader of the Irish people, the truth is that Enda Kenny leads a Vichy government — captive externally to creditors that still insist on loading bank debt onto the sovereign, and internally to a tribe of insiders led by union godfathers in a deal that protects the Government’s own excessive pay and pensions…”

Truth? Someone who uses a term like that to describe his own country doesn’t know the meaning of truth.

In the week that saw the passing of Antoni Dobrowolski, the oldest survivor of Auschwitz, it is worth noting that Vichy was a government in France in World War II that collaborated with the Nazis — to the extent of rounding up tens of thousands Jews for them to kill. The deliberate comparison of our Government — successful or not — to Vichy is disgusting.

So, that’s what I’ve learned these past few days. On our streets, there are thousands of people who are struggling, but are decent. They deserve enormous respect. And then there are a few who are comfortable and self-important.

And deserve no respect whatever.



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