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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 5, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Have yourself an even cheesier Christmas

    Laura Slattery

    I was expecting The Index, my new daily* business/current affairs blog, to have its cheesy moments, but I admit, like the rest of the country, I was taken by surprise this morning when it emerged that the Government is to distribute that well-known ingredient in Christmas dinner – a great slab of cheddar - under an EU-funded free cheese scheme.

    Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Brendan Smith announced on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that a large stock of cheese (at least several cows’ worth), will be available for distribution by voluntary organisations in Dublin, Laois, Waterford and Cork from Monday, November 15th, “in time for Christmas”. The scheme is aimed at people “who are in living in poor circumstances and are under pressure”, which presumably means those same people whose welfare payments are under threat from the Government’s not-so-cunning plan to suck €6 billion out of the economy and try to plug the holes with some leftover bits of brie.

    Needless to say #freecheese is now trending on Twitter**, where the hashtag has become an instant symbol for the general economic chaos enveloping Ireland. Luckily, there was a recent #cheesesongs Twitter thread – Gouda Vibrations, Hit the Road Monterey Jack, Edam I Wish I Was Your Lover, that kind of thing – which meant everyone was well-primed on which cheeses are good for punning. Many more comments were along the more serious “no byelections, but they’re giving us EasiSingles” variety, as well as the despairing “how has it come to this”.

    What it’s come to, of course, is a full-fat circle. Butter vouchers funded by the Department of Agriculture were actually part of Ireland’s social assistance programme until as late as 1999, although the value of the vouchers decreased steadily from the early 1990s. A study by the ESRI’s Brian Nolan and Helen Russell on non-cash payments and poverty notes that in 1997, for example, recipients were entitled to one voucher for themselves and one for each dependant per month. At this point, the vouchers paid 48 pence towards the cost of butter.

    “Government cheese”, distributed to US food stamp recipients, was also a plank of early Reagan policy – indeed, “living off government cheese” became synonymous in the US with receiving government aid in general. As the programme started out as a subsidy to dairy producers, the phrase was used in connection with both assistance for poor families and “corporate welfare”. In a sentence: “Stop hoarding all the government cheese, AIB, and lend us some cash.”

    * When I say daily

    ** Follow me at Twitter.com/LauraSlattery, but only if you’re desperate to know my thoughts about #xfactor.

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