Higgins ‘ashamed’ of social exclusion suffered by poor

President says ‘nation failing to display spirit of humanity on which democracy is built’

UN Day for the Eradication of Poverty has been marked in Dublin at an event attended by President Higgins. Organised by the Irish 17 October Committee, the event featured powerful testimonies from those experiencing poverty. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

President Michael D Higgins has said he is “ashamed” of the humiliation and social exclusion suffered by homeless families, immigrants and the poor.

In an address delivered at the Famine memorial on Dublin’s quays, the President questioned the legitimacy of “any society” to call itself a republic when its vulnerable citizens were treated badly.

Mr Higgins’s address, to mark International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, was delivered after he and a crowd of about 200 people listened to personal testimonies from people struggling with poverty in Ireland.

The testimonies were interspaced with musical performances and one minute’s silence for a poverty services user who took his own life.

Mr Higgins told the gathering he was “ashamed when homeless families are forced to live in one hotel room” and others are “condemned to wander the streets”.

He said “we as a nation are failing to display the necessary spirit of humanity on which a democracy should be built”.

Referring to what he called “the administrative systems” the President said: “I must say very directly when people living in poverty are treated as numerical units, or administrative cases; when they are forced to jump multiple and difficult hurdles in order to claim financial benefits to which they are entitled; too many occasions when they are required to navigate their way around overly complicated procedures and layers of red tape to avail of vital services; when that happens we are insulting and demeaning those amongst us who are guilty of nothing except living, day in day out, below the poverty line.”

Mr Higgins said if citizens experiencing poverty were not enabled to exercise their voice or claim entitlements including education, and object when they feel their rights are being violated, “if all this happens well then any society has failed to operate on the principles of a democratic republic.”

“When strangers who arrive on our shores in need and are left in the uncertain limbo of direct provision for anything up to 10 years, I am ashamed; when homeless families are forced to live in one hotel room devoid of cooking facilities and subject to a dehumanising set of rules and conditions; when others without a roof over their head are condemned to wander the streets by day and desperately seek space in homeless shelters by night, we as a nation are failing to display the necessary spirit of humanity on which a democracy should be built”.

Schoolboy

Mr Higgins paid tribute to a schoolboy, named only as Mihaita who gave personal testimony of his responsibility for getting his seven-year-old brother to school, and his family’s life living in one room while in direct provision. The President said Ireland was lucky and should be proud to have a person of Mihiata’s calibre living among us.

Mr Higgins also paid tribute to a woman named Debbie and her partner Michael. In her personal account Debbie said she had lived in East Wall with her two disabled children before her son died. She kept going because her daughter needed her. While she had opportunities for work taking up a career was difficult because of her daughter’s great need. She said getting a medical card renewed for her daughter took two months, getting a wheelchair took a year. Her daughter was now 20 years of age and she was worried what would happen to her.

Three “peer researchers” with Focus Ireland, who themselves had been homeless, were also commended by the President. Named as Paul, Emma and Kathleena they recalled comments from service users. The comments included remarks about waiting years “for 10 minutes with a psychiatrist” and an account of how rent allowance “made people tell lies” in order to secure rent allowance.

The annual UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty commemorates the start of a 1987 campaign and the founding of the movement All Together in Dignity.

On October 17th every year human rights workers and others come together at ceremonies around the world to show solidarity with those who face chronic and severe poverty, and to press for the eradication of poverty.