What distinguishes the residents of Rockville Drive, who, in the wake of the Carrickmines fire, mounted a protest against emergency accommodation for Travellers who had been left bereaved and with nowhere to stay, from residents of other comfortable housing estates throughout Ireland?
Very little, I imagine: something similar would happen in a great many other places up and down the country. There is a generalised opposition to living beside Travellers, rooted in racism, classism (consider how the insult ‘knacker’ applies both to Travellers and to urban working class people), fears about property prices, fears about what living next to Travellers says about them. If it appears strikingly cold-hearted for residents of an area to oppose giving other human beings some temporary place of shelter, it’s only because this kind of situation doesn’t come to the fore very often in national media. The attitude is there all the time, and it is widespread. If we focus on the intransigence and failings of these particular residents, as if this were a kind of aberration, we lose sight of this point.
I don’t think it diminishes the issue of racism towards Travellers to note that the attitudes and the stances here extend, when it comes to housing, to the question of social housing. There are many owner-occupiers -or rather, people with mortgages- who resent the idea of social housing being built near where they live.
Fine, they say, people need to live somewhere, but why does it have to be here? Why am I working hard to live in a nice place when all these people get the same thing I’m looking for, but in their case they get it for nothing?
There is no point pretending that these opinions and beliefs are the preserve of a cold-hearted minority in such areas. Life in what Margaret Thatcher called a ‘property-owning democracy’ shapes you to think like this. Many people I speak to are reticent about forcefully voicing their opinions on these matters. If you could summarise their outlook, it would be “I know, but..”.
They say things like, “I know people should have somewhere to live, but.. why does it have to be us?” Or, “I agree that we need to look after people, but these people really are good-for-nothings. Or, “That all sounds nice and I agree with you, but there’s no denying these people bring problems.”
Such people seem very well aware that in the cold light of day their stance appears cruel and ignorant. So they present themselves as reasonable and compassionate on the whole, but regrettably pushed beyond a limit in this particular case. Tell them their opinion is racist or ignorant or selfish and they can flare up in indignation. It is as though you were applying a hot branding iron to their skin. They act as though getting caught in such an act would destroy their whole being, their whole sense of themselves, their standing in the eyes of others.
Life in ‘property-owning democracy’ means people cease to see accommodation and shelter as a right. They cease to see it -if ever they did see it- as the condition of possibility for other rights -to health, to education, to a decent standard of living. Instead they see it as just reward for their own personal endeavour, and, ultimately, an object of competition, an asset to be traded and hence, guarded jealously. As for one’s neighbours in this regard, it becomes seldom a matter of simply wanting to live in a pleasant community, but of living in a community that can be sold as pleasant. They see this way of the world expressed by their political respresentatives in government, by newspapers, by TV programmes, by family members, work colleagues… with no other horizon.
It doesn’t seem that hard, on the surface, to imagine a world in which the first response from residents of an area, following a horrific accident affecting Travellers, when told by their local council that their street would now be used for emergency accommodation, would be: how do we help get things set up? How do we make them comfortable and welcome and make sure their needs are met? In fact, if you actually believed the notion that there is such a thing as ‘Middle Ireland’, a world stocked with decent hardworking families who do their bit and look out for others, you may very well imagine that this is what would happen. It may be comforting, even, to imagine that such a thing exists. But when I talk with such people about, for example, why parents shouldn’t have to pay for schoolbooks, pointing out that it should be everyone’s responsibility to pay for these things, or why you shouldn’t have to pay for private health insurance because everyone should have access to the best of treatment as a matter of right, I see them recoil. I see them squirm, they look to the ground and I see that they feel such questions like a threat. And then comes the response: “yes, I know, but…”
I can get how anxiety to see a resolution in this case can lead people to focus their ire and disapproval towards those mounting the protest. Yet it is worth remembering that these people are acting out what people in positions of power and influence have shown to be acceptable. “Just a note to let you know that the McCarthy family will not be allocated a house in your area”, wrote Phil Hogan to constituents who did not want a Traveller family housed in their area back in September 2012. “Councillor Billy Ireland and I are glad to be of assistance in this matter.” Phil Hogan, who was Minister for the Environment at the time, did not lose his job. He was not brought to book for a racist abuse of power. He was appointed an EU Commissioner, paid over €25o,000 a year.
It’s easy to focus solely on moral reproach of the particular individuals involved. This has been the stance taken by certain Labour politicians whose attitude towards basic human rights and basic standards of housing and accommodation is ambivalent at best and utterly contemptuous at worst. This focus, on its own, can suggest there is a decent Middle Ireland out there full of right-thinking people who are categorically not racist and categorically not prejudiced toward Travellers. No such thing exists, and to pretend it does just reproduces the curtain-twitching individualism that keeps these problems alive.