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Leo Varadkar needs better cultural reference points than Benefits Street

It was a jaw-dropping moment that makes you wonder about the cultural diet of our political leaders. Never mind: here are some recommendations to get them back on track

There are a lot of silly plot holes in the Dáil, plenty of shoddy lines, and a sense that we’re in a constant cycle of “Haven’t I seen this one before?”

But the Taoiseach really set the tone for the new season of Oireachtas TV by juxtaposing Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film, I, Daniel Blake – both a searing evisceration and tender exploration of the human cost of the neoliberal entanglement of poverty, administration and the cruelty of Britain’s inadequate welfare system – with a roundly trashed television series from almost a decade ago, Benefits Street. It was a jaw-dropping reference that makes you wonder about the cultural diet of some of our political leaders.

Benefits Street led to Channel 4 and Ofcom receiving hundreds of complaints. The programme was widely criticised, seen as exploitative “poverty porn”, with the programme-makers and broadcaster accused of stirring up hatred against people, and some of its participants saying they felt betrayed and misrepresented.

Citing Benefits Street in a discussion about reforming disability and long-term sickness payments is obviously ludicrous, and would make one almost long for the days when Bertie Ahern was extolling the virtues of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone – the Collapse and Revival of American Community.


But with the nights drawing in, it’s a great time of year to take a trip to the cinema, play some records at home or curl up with a good book. With that in mind, I’ve decided to make some cultural recommendations to the good people of the Dáil and Seanad in the hope that the bar gets a little elevated, and terrible television references are never made again. And luckily, there’s a new Ken Loach and Paul Laverty film out, The Old Oak, that examines community and xenophobia. One for our politicians to watch.

For the conspiracy caucus of the Dáil and Seanad, with their occasional flirtation with far-right tropes, if they missed Naomi Klein’s talk at the RDS at the weekend, they can pick up Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World in all good bookshops. They might also learn something from Web of Lies by Donegal woman Aoife Gallagher, who is an expert analyst of far-right extremism, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Or they could enjoy the Conspirituality podcast, the QAnon Anonymous Podcast, and Waiting for JFK: Report from the Fringe, Donie O’Sullivan and CNN’s year-long investigation into how some Americans have fallen for another QAnon-related conspiracy theory.

Politicians of every hue should revisit Brian Friel’s The Mundy Scheme, the plot of which involves a new Taoiseach and a Cabinet minister concocting a plan to repurpose parts of Ireland as graveyards for sentimental Irish-Americans. Perhaps it’s time for a revival – only this time, let’s switch the graveyards with data centres. Eamon Ryan could direct, since he insists that data centres are a key component of Ireland’s infrastructure – which they’re not, they’re a key component of global tech companies’ infrastructure. Easy mistake to make! It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.

For Darragh O’Brien, I prescribe Town’s Dead by Kojaque, the title track from his stunning 2021 album featuring the lyrics, “You could try the house share, try rentin’, bit of money for the landlord’s pension ... Now the Corpo’s knockin’ down the flats just to build a few gaffs just to fill ‘em with some triple-barrel surnames. Door frame wouldn’t fit the halo on your head, tell ya butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth ‘round your way.”

O’Brien might also be interested in the upcoming documentary, 100 Bliain de Thithíocht – Géarchéim gan Deireadh (100 Years of Housing – Crisis Without End), written and directed by Paul Webster, and airing on TG4, Wednesday October 25th at 9.30pm. The whole country should tune in.

The two largest government parties might also bop around to I Love You by Fontaines D.C., currently on tour with Arctic Monkeys in the US, and heading to Mexico City this weekend to play two massive shows. “Is their mammy Fine Gael and is their daddy Fianna Fáil?,” the song goes, “And they say they love the land, but they don’t feel it go to waste. Hold a mirror to the youth and they will only see their face.”

When he’s finished watching reruns of Benefits Street, the Taoiseach can finally kick back and revisit the back catalogue of the Dundalk group TPM, which features members of the wonderful The Mary Wallopers, a band that provided one of the highlights of BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, and this month embarks on a tour of North America, playing iconic venues such as Irving Plaza in New York City and the Troubadour in Los Angeles.

What’s especially pertinent is the protest rap TPM Don’t Have Your Money, a song which featured artwork of Varadkar himself. Let’s recall those lyrics, shall we? “I take a hundred euro out of the tax pool, but that’s all the harm I’m going to do to you. The other pr*ck gets up at 6am, drives his beamer to Dublin to the KBC bank. He walks in, starts committing crimes with a ballpoint pen. Kicks some pensioner out their house, the tax form, it never got filled out. The interest piles over the last long while, your woman on the telly has a sinister smile. The rent goes up, the wages stay steady, you’re watching Fine Gael ads on the telly. They’re telling you all about welfare cheats. Be careful now child what you choose to believe.”