“Clare is not Alaska”: Poverty and under-investment in a marginalised Irish county
This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
This week, Clare Public Participation Network (PPN) launched its report Towards an Anti-Poverty Strategy for Clare at Buswell’s hotel in Dublin. This report researched and written by Dr Conor McCabe was commissioned by six community groups in Clare who represent and are comprised of people who experience poverty and exclusion in County Clare. These groups include Travellers, people with disabilities, older people, women, carers, LGBTQ+ people, migrants, asylum seekers and people who experience socio-economic inequality in County Clare, and they made up the steering group for this project.
Arguably this group, most of whom are already overstretched and under-funded have, with the detailed help of their researcher and their own expertise, produced one of the best pieces of work on the socio-economic context of contemporary life in the place that is often referred to as ‘rural Ireland’. Their report covers a huge amount of ground and data, much of it primary research that had to be done in order to even paint a picture of life in Clare. However if there are two main findings from the report they are these:
That people who experience social exclusion in Clare understand it – they know why, they know what is missing, and they fully understand the nuances and interplay between the issues they must navigate. They understand that insecure housing is a mental health issue, that addiction is worse when combined with a lack of services or transport to those services, and that childhood development is impacted by lack of proper living spaces. They know that the direct provision system is itself a cause of poverty, that it costs money and time to be poor or disabled, or a single parent, that courses and education are not an answer to a lack of infrastructure, that care work is undervalued, gendered, and – often in Clare – necessary care is unavailable to those who need it for that very reason, and taking on low-wage, insecure work is a risk if you have family depending on you or if you have a disability that causes you expense.
Secondly, traditional anti-poverty programmes which focus on improving and helping individuals will not eradicate poverty in Clare. Poverty in Clare will only be eradicated when these programmes are accompanied by sustained, planned investment in infrastructure and services. Empowerment classes will not compensate for the fact that Clare has, as our report proves, fewer doctors (33%), fewer dentists (50%) and less social housing (27%) than the national average.
The need for evidence-based policy
The report launched yesterday will and should make difficult reading for policy-makers. The assertion that the housing system in Clare is in chaos has already rattled a few cages, but really there can be no other way to describe a place which has 10,281 vacant inhabitable houses with only 10 available publicly for long term renting and has experienced an 81% increase in homelessness over two years.
As noted in our report, the consultancy firm KPMG provided the analysis on which the housing section of Clare County Council’s new draft county development plan is based, but our community groups don’t know one single person who was consulted about this analysis. As one person joked: no one who lives in a house in Clare was asked about housing in Clare.
Jokes aside, huge resources are being put into the pockets of consultants to make plans for Clare – more than €22 million in the last five years – and yet we still do not have accurate data or statistics on the lives, livelihoods, housing, employment, enterprise and access to services for people in the county – and policy is being made without this information. Clare PPN received funding from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to work on this report and secure the services of Dr McCabe. With that funding of €17,000, we have managed to bring a huge amount of information into the public domain. It’s our job now with the media’s help to make sure that decision-makers pay attention to it.
We also expect some eyebrows to be raised that a group of people experiencing poverty and marginalisation in Clare are calling for re-examinations of the national planning framework and national development plan, both of which see Clare marginalised in terms of investment in infrastructure and sustainable economic development, but really this is where we are at.
Climate and economic justice
Our communities know that given the climate crisis we are facing into some of the biggest changes to our way of living that most of us have ever experienced. In our report we have shown how Clare in particular is exposed to a range of particular risks from both climate change and climate action, with our farming, transport and home heating systems particularly in need of change, not to mention geographic issues such as flood risk which will disproportionately affect Clare.
We see no evidence that there are any action plans in place based on real data that have the capacity to reduce existing poverty in Clare. And certainly, we see no planning framework which seeks to properly protect our communities from these forthcoming changes. As our report notes, we are in need of just transition plan for our communities but one defined much differently than that currently being used by Government.
Our report clearly shows that within Ireland and even within Clare an individual’s socio-economic rights are not equally realised. A person’s right to health or housing for example is less likely to be vindicated in Clare than elsewhere. These findings mean a change in approach is needed. Even though it may seem as if we have bitten off more than we can chew, our groups will be working to try and ensure those changes happen: that we move towards sustainable economic and social policies that understand that economic development is only valuable when it improves the lives of communities. The national development plan cannot ignore the fact that, inconvenient as we may be, people of all types and walks of life live in our rural towns and villages and hinterlands. Plans that see the development of 15-minute towns but don’t try to understand why people are living where they are living now will fail.
A call for change
We are calling for an end to policies that see us waiting beside the table of profit-seeking enterprises to drop us a few crumbs of infrastructure or public services whilst extracting the good and life out of our communities. Our human rights should not be contingent on whether it is profitable for someone to provide them. Our government, whoever they are, needs to invest directly in our wellbeing and into our rural communities; it is the job of government to redistribute wealth and provide for society. We are a small, wealthy country that seems to be wedded to scarcity politics. What we need is a government which understands that investing directly in communities is investment. It is wealth building and we need them to do it.
It is poignant that this report is coming from County Clare, where almost a century ago the Shannon Scheme which led to the electrification of Ireland was. We urgently need a bit of that ambition rediscovered. Our community groups do a huge amount to make life in Ireland better for many. However, they cannot and should not be expected to compensate for lack of state investment and quality public services. Anyone reading our report will find heart-breaking testimony from communities under pressure. People shared these stories to seek change, not pity. It’s time for our government to stop shirking its responsibilities and leaving the survival or our communities in the hands of ‘market forces’.
Sarah Clancy is a writer, poet and the Coordinator for Clare Public Participation Network.