Poverty in the land of the Emerald Tiger


ONE of the great assumptions of Irish culture is that a sense of place is a fine thing. We love the idea of the local. We think we can be understood by knowing where they come from. We use words like "community" with a remarkable innocence, as if it were obvious that the people who live in the same place must be the same people, with the same lives, the same aspirations, the same economic interests.

But maybe one of the consequences of our new-found prosperity is that we have to think again about the meaning of place in our imaginations. Maybe it is time that we stopped talking about Ireland as a "place" altogether.

Ireland in 1997 provides a dramatic illustration of a distinction that sociologists and economists sometimes make between "place prosperity" and "people prosperity", between the wealth of a region on the one hand and the poverty of significant groups of people within it on the other Taken as a whole, the Republic is astonishingly prosperous. In 1996, a dozen houses in Dublin sold for more than £1 million each. Just three golf clubs - at Druid's Glen, Mount Juliet and the K-Club - between them took in more than £2.5 million in green fees in 1996. About 115,000 new cars were registered and about 400,000 holidays were booked with Irish travel agents. As a place, Ireland is on the up-and-up.

But, of course, "Ireland" in that sense is a foreign country to many of its citizens. About a third of Irish society is on the outside, and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing. Many Irish people can visit the land of the Emerald Tiger as tourists, but they have no rights of residence.

For most of the last 40 years, public policy has been driven by a sense of place. From 1952, when the Undeveloped Areas Act was passed, State support has been channelled towards "designated areas". Grants and incentives have been higher or lower depending on how poor or how prosperous the area is judged to be.

This made a great deal of sense and produced a great deal of intelligent State intervention, but it also had the effect of defining poverty as a function of place, not of power. Poor people were out, poor regions were in.

The development of the regional funds by the European Union gave a massive boost to this process. The Republic had a vested interest in talking about poverty and place as inextricably intertwined. Ireland was poor because it was geographically marginal. Ireland as a whole was an undeveloped region of the EU. The rich of Europe had a duty to give lots of money to the Irish region. The issue was equality between regions. Equality within regions was another question altogether.

This process was supported by a long history of rhetoric in which issues of social inequality were construed as issues of geographical inequality. The most persistent and emotionally charged of these rhetorical devices was that of the poor, underdeveloped West against the rich, sophisticated East.

Like all the best rhetorical devices, it obscured awkward realities, like the fact that by 1990 the highest proportion of high-technology firms in the Republic was located in the Mid-West region, followed by the Dublin area and the West.

It glossed over the fact that it was perfectly possible for any region to contain both high-tech prosperity and miserably marginalised people. Or that, indeed, one of the characteristics of contemporary economic development is precisely that it does contain both of these things at the same time.

RECENTLY the Combat Poverty Agency published Poverty in Rural Ireland (edited by Chris Curtin, Trutz Haase and Hilary Tovey), one of the most thorough and detailed analyses of the distribution of poverty in Ireland yet undertaken. At one level, it confirms what would be generally expected: that there are particular places where disadvantage is clustered.

In Dublin, they are the north and south inner city, Coolock, Ballymun, Cabra, Finglas, parts of Blanchardstown, Rialto, Kilmainham, Ballyfermot, Cherry Orchard, Clondalkin, Kimmage, Crumlin, Walkinstown, West Tallaght, and pockets of Dun Laoghaire. Outside Dublin, they are in Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford, Drogheda, Dundalk, Sligo, Kilkenny, Wexford and Bray. In rural Ireland, they are in Donegal and Mayo, the Border counties, Roscommon, North Kerry and Clare.

To sum up, poverty is to found in the North, South, East and West. It is concentrated in the cities, the towns and the countryside. It can be identified particularly in Leinster, Ulster, Connacht and Munster. All other regions are, thank God, safe from its insidious presence.

I am being a bit facetious, and it is of course true that there are places, communities and even regions that are significantly more disadvantaged than others. There is a specifically urban kind of poverty (associated with public authority housing, lone parents and long-term unemployment), and a specifically rural kind (associated with small farming and large numbers of dependent old people).

But the most striking thing in the research on the distribution of deprivation published in the book by John A. Jackson and Trutz Haase is their finding that the "overriding influence" is not place but social class. Where you live has an influence on the kind of poverty you might experience. But economic power, not geographical location, is the most important factor in determining whether you are likely to experience poverty at all.

INDEED, Jackson and Haase go so far as to question whether it makes sense any more to talk about rural and urban Ireland as distinct societies. They point to growing numbers of people who live in the countryside and commute to the cities for work, the fact that inner cities are experiencing the kind of depopulation that used to be regarded as a rural phenomenon, the significant decline in the number of people living in the countryside who are actually engaged in agriculture, and the location of multinational industries in "rural" areas.

"Factors such as media access, especially television, travel, tourism, and the growing diversification of consumer products have contributed to the incorporation of the rural population into the global economy and society."

One of the things we have to do is to stop thinking geographically and start thinking socially. For a small and relatively homogeneous State, we have remained remarkably territorial in our thinking. We tend to judge everything by its effect on "our own place". We still vote for the local candidate. We still expect ministers to provide special goodies for their own constituencies.

In the new Ireland, it makes less and less sense to talk about rich places and poor places. The Financial Services Centre is in the north inner city of Dublin, but, for the local population, it might as well be in London. You could put an IBM factory into, say, Drogheda tomorrow, without having much effect on the town's long-term unemployed, most of whom lack the skills to get any of the jobs. And we could become the richest place on earth while still having no place for a huge number of our citizens.