• -
  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 24, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    Minister decides beggars can no longer be choosers

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    There’s nothing like a dose of reality to test your liberal  credentials. I believe in the maximum amount of freedom for everyone to do as they wish, as long as it’s compatible with public order in the broadest sense and the welfare of society in general.

    I also believe society must look after the less well-off and that the rich  should be appropriately taxed to support the poor. But every day as I make my way to and from my job covering Leinster House and its inhabitants, I have to face individuals and situations that make me want to reach for somewhat less-liberal solutions.

    I refer, of course, to the remarkable proliferation of beggars in the streets around the Dáil and the city-centre in recent years, especially the area around Grafton Street. As a middle-aged man and a father it upsets me to see young men half my age sitting on the pavement holding out paper cups.

    There seem to be three broad responses to these individuals: 1) Give them nothing because life is a jungle and you should hold onto your hard-earned cash: 2) Give them nothing because charity is not the solution and vote for the party with the most humane approach in the next election; 3) Give them a few euro from the change in your pocket.

     My responses tend to veer between Numbers 2 and 3 above. At a time when the economy was booming and work was easy to get, it seemed not unreasonable to take the view that at least some of those who were begging should perhaps consider, er, looking for a job, like. Sure, there are people begging who would never be hired by any sane employer because of their drink/drugs problem combined with anti-social behaviour. But others seemed able-bodied and intelligent and capable of  making a contribution to society instead of depending on the random kindness of strangers.

    Since the economy went pear-shaped, I’m inclined to be more tolerant and root around in that aforementioned pocket for some change. But it’s a very unsatisfactory situation. We should be living in a society without beggars, which is not say that you can simply ban them and brush the problem under the carpet. The social problems that give rise to some of the begging (I emphasise ”some”) need to be dealt with more energetically, whether it’s drug or alcohol abuse or the even-trickier phenomenon of dysfunctional families.

    These thoughts are prompted by the news that Justice Minister Dermot Ahern is to introduce a Bill imposing fines of up to €700 or a month in jail for begging where that is accompanied by harassment, obstruction or intimidation. It will still be okay to ask someone for your busfare if you find yourself penniless. (Click here to read the story.)

    No doubt there is the occasional bohemian who sees himself/herself as a latter-day Jack Kerouac living off the largesse of the passing crowd. But I suspect there are many very disturbed and troubled people whose lives have been ruined by one or other of the factors mentioned above. Then there are the cynical types who have no shame and just want to pick up some easy money. It seems the pickings can be good if you make your way through the vicinity of Grafton Street at the right time on a sunny Friday evening.

    Having lived in this town since the age of ten, I can remember what it was like before. I can remember that the only beggars you met were members of what would now be called the Travelling Community. In those politically-incorrect days of course we thoughtlessly and insultingly called them “tinkers”.  Classically an elderly lady in a shawl would approach, showering blessings on you in advance for your generosity and damning you to hell afterwards if you didn’t cough up.

    Strangely, there seem to be very few Travellers begging nowadays. I hope that is a good sign. Also I notice that the more able-bodied beggars in particular are very polite and mannerly. If you give them nothing, they say something like, “Have a good evening, Sir.” Do they have Begging School now?  

    It can’t be doing much for the tourist trade at this time of difficulty. It must be  particularly intimidating for women to have a rough-looking character sitting on the ground at the ATM and demanding a hand-out as they withdraw their cash.

    In conclusion, it’s not enough to be a knee-jerk liberal on this issue. Compassion and humanity must be shown of course and meaningful policies, as distinct from empty rhetoric, must be followed on issues like homelessness and drug abuse. But the sheer  numbers in Dublin city-centre and no doubt elsewhere suggest that this problem has gone out of control (perhaps there are latter-day Fagins behind the scenes?) and must be dealt with in an intelligent, effective but still sensitive manner.

     Deaglán de Bréadún

    • robespierre says:

      Good column. I am reminded of the London segment of Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”. In his conclusion he talks with searing and brutal honesty about how the compounding sense of uselessness and the imperative to find food and shelter from one day to the next creates a vicious circle. Added to this the fact that in his experience most of the vagrants wanted to work for their food and shelter and not to be treated like animals.

      I am no pinko liberal but how we can possibly think that making criminals of the least fortunate among our number makes sense is beyond me. Those that break the law should be treated like everybody else, those that are down at heel deserve, sympathy, understanding and a system willing to give them a break.

      I remember visiting London as a boy and seeing the cardboard city in Leicester Square – no society would ever seek to make a virtue of such a statement. We have enough law and order in Ireland, what we lack is a socially-cohesive responsive to taking care of the most vulnerable.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Deaglán, I have to pull you up on ‘of course we thoughtlessly and insultingly called them “tinkers”’. The rather dull fact is that tinker was neither insulting nor thoughtless but was the plain correct term for those who had previously made their living from tinkering.

      A tinker as a tinsmith, much like a cooper or blacksmith or any other tradesperson of the time played a vital role in the world of yesteryear. They were the small-scale panelbeaters of their day.

      Yet much like another term used in reference to the rendering of animals not fit for human consumption such as horses these terms were deemed to be offensive less for their lack of accuracy or any inherent offence in the term but because it was perceived that we shouldn’t have any term at all for our less settled brethren because it set them apart.

      Now that we’re all so multi-cultural, “Travellers” is ok because it supports the idea that we’re talking about a sufficiently distinctive ethnic group to them to have a separate name and identity. We went from tinkers to itinerants to travellers in less than a generation and all the while talking about the same people. At least tinkers had a role in society providing a needed service.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for that learned disquisition, Dan. I suspect you will still incur the wrath of some people however. I take it the other word you have in mind is “knacker”. We are venturing into very politically-incorrect territory!

    • Rosemary says:

      The people referred to as “tinkers” were not, and we all know it, tinksmiths – or, at least not all of them were. To suggest otherwise is to be on the opposite end of extreme political correctness; “tinker” is an insulting term not because to be a tinksmith is a terrible thing, but because it was used in a derogatory fashion for years in order to discriminate against one particular social group.
      Words are just words – but it’s the assumed meaning that may cause offence, not just the Oxford meaning.

    • Dan, I am much more inclined to agree with you.

      No more than terminology such as ‘Gay’ and ‘Lesbian’; it is not until a particular community reclaims a term, turns it around and celebrates it in a way that represents a cultural celebration of that culture.

      What has been passed down through generations in my oral culture (which goes back a long way on this island) part of the travelling community are descendants of the people who wandered the land using their skills to generate revenue along the way.

      Entrepreneurial Spirit some might say!!!

Search Politics