Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Demonising the downtrodden

It is not nice to be unemployed or trying to set up a new business from scratch in a country in which a senior Government Minister can get away with claiming that some people are “allergic to work”.
Neither is it any fun to go through the daily grind of trawling through jobs websites to see if any companies have vacancies which match your skills, full of urgency and anxiety while friends and family tell you how important it is to be patient – that the right job will eventually come your way.

No doubt, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has not experienced the despair of spending two or three days online without finding any opening to suit his skills. He does not know the frustration of seeing another weekend arrive and not a sign of a new job on the horizon.

The “guilt” of going to the soccer match on a Friday night, knowing that others have done a full week’s work and all your efforts have been in vain.

And, of course, even if he was turfed out of office tomorrow Minister Noonan would still land himself a handsome pension which would see him live in comfort until the end of his days.

I know that he was not generalising about all unemployed people, but his comments were shocking all the same.

Has he ever had the indignity of queuing for two hours to see someone behind a hatch in the Department of Social Protection? Perhaps just to report that, hey presto, he’d managed to get one day’s work this week.

Or wondered what it’s like to feel stigmatised while collecting the weekly payment from the local post master, no matter how genuinely friendly she is as she hands over the small allowance on a Wednesday morning.

I know a neighbour who collects his Jobseekers Benefit at 9am in the hope that he won’t bump into anyone who might recognise him. No matter that he held down a job for over 20 years. Tell him there’s no stigma attached to being on the dole.

How handy too that people at the lowest rung of society are being demonised again, in the week in which lone parents have had their allowances slashed and local authority tenants have had their private details forwarded to Irish Water.

It is no wonder that people feel there are “two Irelands” now. One for the rich elite who have their debts written off, and a parallel universe for those who face losing their homes due to pressure from the banks, or trying to make ends meet on vastly reduced payments for single parent families.

In my experience, Minister Noonan is completely off the mark.

Over the past three months I undertook a Build Your Own Online Business course with ten classmates who were all in their 30s or 40s. Most were changing careers and had been out of work for weeks or months.

The mix of skills and life experiences in the room was incredible. The way we “buzzed” off each other meant that I sometimes learned more about digital marketing from my fellow students than the tutors.

We built our own websites, we shared ideas and advice, and the energy in the room was a joy to behold. Each and every person in the room was mad keen to either set up on their own or to get back to work.

Not one of them enjoyed the weekly ritual of calling into the unemployment office or post office to collect a meagre amount of cash, far less than they would live on if they were lucky enough to have a job.

One of the people on the course has been out of work for five years. It was heartbreaking to hear him describe how many jobs he has applied for and how many courses he has undertaken to improve his graphic design skills.

We have been told that Ireland will have full employment within a couple of years, which is fantastic after seven years of austerity, emigration and pain.

But try trawling through the websites and finding that so many vacancies are “internships” or JobBridge schemes.

A few weeks ago I noticed that one of the richest businessmen in Ireland, who also happens to be a tax exile, was offering an “internship” for a garage forecourt attendant at one of his large chain of petrol stations. 

Just imagine how many new skills a young person would learn during a nine month “internship” filling petrol.
Try telling someone in their 40s that they should work a full week for an employer for their social welfare, plus €50.

I learned a lot about digital marketing from my course.

But I learned an even more valuable lesson over the 12 weeks – there are immensely talented people all around us who have an awful lot to offer and are genuinely anxious to find employment again.

I know Minister Noonan was not talking about all of us, but it was quite insulting to say that people like them are “allergic” to work.

Because there is nothing immoral about being “allergic” to rip-off schemes which allow employers to take advantage of the current jobs market by hiring people to work in garages for €50 a week.

If anything the Minister’s comments are offensive to people who are struggling to make ends meet and mind their mental health in parts of the country which have not been touched by the latest “boom”.

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned emigration, with so many young Irish people now living in Canada and Australia. Imagine how high the jobless rate would be if Ireland did not have that safety net?

The real scandals in this country relate to dodgy deals done in the corridors of power, lengthy hospital waiting lists, and the preferential treatment of the rich in writing off bank debt. 

Not the small minority of unemployed people who have no interest in ever getting a job.

If Minister Noonan tried to spend six months or a year living on less than €200 a week, he’d soon realise that there are thousands of people all around the country desperately searching for work. Despite all the hype from his Government about the wonderful "recovery" which is now well underway. At least over in that parallel universe of his!

Monday, May 4, 2015

From the darkness to the light ...

Check out my new website:

Volunteering for Pieta House has been an excellent experience for me through a tough six month period in which I battled to overcome the MRSA 'superbug' after undergoing routine surgery at Univesity Hospital Galway back in early November.

When I left the Connacht Tribune at the end of September, I had not envisaged months of hanging around my home city waiting for my shoulder to heal.

Voluntary redundancy was supposed to open up a whole new set of opportunities, not three operations in as many months and at least 100 visits to the (superb) public health nurses.

The experience has taught me to live more in the present, and not to spend so much time planning an uncertain future. 

Running the event's Facebook page, which passed the 8,000 followers mark last week, has been a welcome distraction as have the regular meetings with the core group of eight volunteers who have put so much effort into the running of the Darkness Into Light (DIL) event next Saturday.

The six month build up has allowed me to use my journalism and social media skills, while planning an event which is expected to bring 4,000 people to Salthill in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The power of social media was brought home to me recently when a friend's wonderful photograph of the Salthill promenade was viewed by over 11,500 people.

As I contemplate on whether to volunteer overseas or seek a new job in Ireland, volunteering for DIL has helped me to get through some dark nights of the soul.

The growth in popularity of DIL, the annual fundraising event in aid of the suicide prevention charity, has been nothing short of phenomenal. People really 'get' the twin themes of hope and rememberance.
It has only been five years since the first one took place at the Phoenix Park in Dublin and four since 80 hardy souls braved the elements for a dawn walk in Salthill to bring the event to Galway for the first time.

Last year there were two in Co Galway, Tuam and Salthill, and those of us who spent six months planning the city event were amazed when over 4,000 people turned up at Leisureland just before 4am.

There are 80 walks taking place across the world this year as DIL has gone international for the first time, a huge increase on the 39 which took place in Ireland in 2014. 

There is something hugely symbolic about an event in which people put on bright yellow t-shirts before taking off for a 5km walk which begins in complete darkness but ends with the arrival of the dawn.

It symbolises the hope provided by Pieta House to people in distress and the importance of the walk to the region was underlined when Pieta opened their first West of Ireland facility, providing free counselling, in Tuam early last year.

In Galway, we are blessed to have the Salthill Promenade, which means that our walk is one of the most scenic in the country – we will have rivals in that department from the three Aran Islands, who have all come on board for the first time this year.

So it makes sense to start and end the event at Leisureland, taking in the seafront and South Park, where a team of volunteers added to the magical atmosphere by putting down a trail of night lights last year.

As far back as January, a group of eight of us sat down in a Galway city centre office to begin the planning for the event which takes place at 4.15am next Saturday (May 9).

Half of our committee were on board last year, when the Galway City walk alone raised €80,000 for Pieta House, and it was good for us ‘veterans’ to see some newcomers come on board.

A lot of planning goes into it. We needed to secure venues, get Garda clearance to close off the streets in the middle of the night, and secure thousands of t-shirts and hundreds of posters from Pieta House in Dublin. My own role involves updating the Facebook page, which has become a bit hectic over the past two weeks.

We have opened up a ‘pop up’ shop at the Eyre Square Centre over recent weekends and the commitment to the cause of our committee members, who put in many hours without being paid a cent, has to be seen to be believed.

It was our task to organise the launch of all nine Co Galway walks last month and the goodwill there is towards the event was evident in the huge turnout at the Galway Bay Hotel in Salthill.

Galway hurling captain David Collins, who lost a team-mate to suicide, made an astounding speech which almost brought everyone in the room to tears; while Connacht Rugby manager Pat Lam and Galway United boss Tommy Dunne also gave phenomenal support to DIL.

The Connacht management team will do an early morning run in yellow DIL t-shirts on Saturday, even though they are away from home, while the Galway United players did their warm-up in support of the event a few weeks ago.

Their speeches at the launch underlined the importance of talking about suicide and mental health, how it really helps to show people that they are not suffering alone. Pieta House also run a ‘Mind our Men’ campaign as us men definitely find it harder than women to talk about mental health problems.

At the launch of DIL at the Galway Bay Hotel

Richard Donovan, who organises marathons all over the world, has given us a gantry which will allow us to separate runners from walkers ahead of the pre-dawn start. Believe it or not, some people really enjoy a 5km run at 4.15 in the morning!

This year’s theme is connectivity and everyone taking part is urged to reach out and begin a conversation with the person walking alongside them.

There is bound to be an anti-climax for the eight or nine of us who have put five months’ work into organising the Galway walk, but there is great satisfaction in knowing that our efforts go some way towards helping people who are in distress.

Let’s hope the weather is a bit better than last year! Most people were drenched to the skin when they returned to Leisureland, but nobody seemed to mind as they stayed around for some excellent musical entertainment and a cup of tea afterwards. In fact, the atmosphere was so magical that nobody wanted to go home!

The Galway City Darkness Into Light walk takes place at Leisureland at 4.15am on Saturday morning. Check out the event’s Facebook page: T-shirts can be collected in Leisureland on Friday evening, May 8, from 5 to 8pm.