Some of the best letters that get sent into our local newspaper are the ones that capture an existential crisis – whenever anything of note happens within a fifty-kilometer radius of Portlaoise at least one person will try composing a piece in which they lament about how utterly irrelevant our county has become and there’s something oddly beautiful about it. These pieces never actually go anywhere or lead to anything changing but I guess that’s the point, you’re essentially just seeing someone go through the five stages of grief over the absence of a bridge and that feels oddly poignant, mainly just as it’s surprising that anyone would actually put in the effort to write about it.
I think its time for me to finally try putting together one of these letters – Laois is just after entering a two week localized lockdown due to a resurgence of COVID-19 and my plans for the month have been put into flux as a result. I’d initially planned on weaning myself off my current writing schedule over the next few weeks as we edged towards normality again – the way in which I’ve kept this blog updated over the past few months requires at least two all-nighters a week and that isn’t really feasible while living in the real, non-insane world. At first I assumed that I’d spend the next few weeks making up for lost time – cutting down to just writing once a week in order to focus on returning to regular exercise, actually productive work, and the friends I’ve gone a concerning amount of time without seeing face-to-face. That’s all essentially gone out the window now, leading to me sitting here on a Monday trying to throw together a response to three cynical tweets that made me vaguely angry yesterday for some reason. This year has gone well.
maybe we should have seen this coming
One of the most depressing things about the pandemic is how utterly predictable this outcome was – the virus is targeting the exact communities we thought it would and nothing was done about it as it got in the way of the profit motive. To understand why we’re in lockdown again we have to look directly at the conditions under which the virus seems to be thriving – the workplaces of some of the most exploited workers in the country and the direct provision centers we shove them into.
The spread of COVID-19 throughout the three counties seems to be fundamentally linked to the presence of meat factories in the area, with 150 workers testing positive at the Kildare Chilling facility, 86 testing positive at O’Brien Fine Foods, and nine at the Irish Dog Food Factory. Four factories are currently closed as workers get tested for the virus and members of SIPTU met with Meat Industry Ireland in a historic first. According to SIPTU divisional organiser Greg Ennis, the precarious working conditions in these factories contribute to the transmission of the disease – “[…] workers are forced into work on the basis that they have nothing else to rely upon. We have anecdotal evidence where people are being told to come to work or they may not have a job. But when you don’t have sick pay and you’re earning somewhere just above the minimum wage, it is very very difficult – unless you’re really sick – not to go into work because you’ve nothing to fall back on”.
This precarity is increased tenfold for workers living under Direct Provision, a system under which the government pays a stupid amount to some of the most inept hotel owners in the country to house asylum seekers. Social distancing in a Direct Provision center is nigh impossible, with asylum seekers forced to share dining, washing, and bedroom facilities. According to a survey released by the Irish Refugee Council, 50% of respondents felt that they were unable to practice social distancing, with 42% stating they shared a room with a non-family member, and 46% stating they shared a bathroom with a non-family member.
The government’s strategy for dealing with COVID cases under Direct Provision seems to be lacking, with those who test positive being shipped off to Citywest in Dublin in order to isolate. The outbreak within these centers has been accelerated by the Government’s decision to exempt asylum seekers from the Pandemic Unemployment Payment – 85% of asylum seekers surveyed feel that the daily expenses allowance of €38.20 isn’t enough to live on, creating a situation where asylum seekers felt pressured to continue working regardless of how risky it was. Combine this with the fact that those living under DP tend to work in the same precarious conditions that lead to the outbreaks in meat plants and you’re given a glorified tinderbox for the spread of the virus, inevitably leading to our current position.
One of the bleakest things about this ordeal is that the government actively knew about the overcrowding in Direct Provision centres and essentially just shrugged it off. Seven months ago video footage surfaced of the East End Hotel in Portarlington, showing eleven asylum seekers being crammed into one room consisting of ten beds. Local TD (and former justice minister) Charlie Flanagan initially claimed that this video was “staged” (an accusation vehemently denied by MASI) but later went on to admit that his department had approved a similar arrangement in a separate room in the same hotel. Flanagan’s department then tried defending the 10-bed room, trying to claim that it met the minimum space of 400 cubic feet per person outlined in the 1996 Housing Act.
This story essentially just vanished from public consciousness within the span of a month – Flanagan went on to retain his TD seat in the last election, the press essentially just gave up on criticizing the government, and we all collectively forgot about the overcrowding by the time that we admitted that the coronavirus could exist in countries that aren’t China. The system of Irish gombeen capitalism we live under requires these constant blind spots – we’re expected to completely ignore how horrifically the private sector has handled looking after the elderly, vulnerable, and powerless in exchange for that one Brady’s Ham ad where they sing ‘Come Out You Black And Tans’ and that should naturally drive you crazy.
the culchie problem (and where to go next)
Our press was essentially backed into a corner by this recent lockdown – how exactly do you deflect from the fact that greedy capitalists accelerated the conditions that lead to a local outbreak? The answer seems to be quite simple, completely detaching from any semblance of reality. Pundits across the country raced to come up with the most absurd take on the lockdown, with some complaining about the “blame game” of asking employers to ensure safe working conditions, some placing the blame solely on all ten (largely non-existent) young people within the three counties, and others claiming that the vulnerable choking to death in order to protect the ham industry was just part and parcel of everyday existence. Nobody wanted to admit that the socialist left had predicted this exact outcome months ago, nobody wanted to question the government’s previous inaction when it came to these factories, and nobody wanted to admit that Larry Goodman existed.
There was a constant distraction from the material reality of the lockdown, the voices of those actually working in the meat plants or living in the community were essentially just sidelined as our pundit class stuck the names of various demographics to a dartboard in the hopes of finding a convenient group to blame. The ruling parties essentially got off scot-free for enabling the conditions that lead to this lockdown – the same TD who started this year defending ten-bed hotel rooms for asylum seekers can whinge to the press about our communities feeling “unfairly victimized” and pass off as vaguely populist while implementing the exact same policies that brought us to this point. Where are we supposed to go from here?
Our left barely leaves the Pale and that creates a weird chicken and egg situation whenever any movement tries to expand beyond the DART – you need members within a certain area to maintain an active branch but how do you even find possible members if you don’t exist within an area? Typically one or two activists will float towards a party that exists in a larger city, try establishing something small with resources said party probably doesn’t have enough of, hit a brick wall due to a lack of those resources, and eventually just burn out. Even if we make the assumption that our parties have the members and time required to chuck townies into smaller counties questions need to be asked about how we engage within those communities – it wasn’t productive for the Trinity Maoists to roam around Leitrim during a by-election releasing statements addressed to “fellow comrade peasants” and getting a bunch of denim jacket wearing Stalinists to shout outside the Ploughing Championships won’t achieve much (even if it’d be fairly funny to witness).
Our past strategy of essentially just covering our eyes the second we leave the M7 feels inadequate during this post-COVID era – there’s a significant section of disaffected youth outside of the larger cities and the escape valve of emigration is no longer feasible for the next few years. As we saw in 2019 if we ignore alienated communities utter gowls are able to gain ground – we don’t want the conversation around systems like DP to shift from focusing on it being cruel to it not being cruel enough but letting Irish Freedom Party eejits bus themselves into our counties just enables that. The insane surpluses Sinn Féin candidates received this February shows that there’s a space for progressive voices outside of the larger cities, it’s just a case of working out how we present our arguments.
Successfully building outside of the cities is largely untrodden ground for the Irish left so I’m not going to pretend that I have any real ideas as to what it’d look like. However, this current lockdown feels like the perfect opportunity to refute the narrative pushed by our political establishment – we were never all “on the same side” when it came to this pandemic and recent events have made this fairly obvious. The people of Laois, Offaly, and Kildare aren’t to blame for the actions of those who operate unsafe factories or overcrowded DP centres, they aren’t to blame for the rushing of our reopening, and they aren’t to blame for our government’s fundamental inability to prioritize the safety of workers. Young people in the three counties didn’t cause the spread of this virus by holding house parties, their employers accelerated the spread by refusing to provide safe working conditions.
The neoliberal system we live under has fundamentally failed for a majority of the young people being attacked by our pundits – a vast majority of those who didn’t get to sit their Leaving Cert this year in the three counties will be unable to find any real employment within their areas (if anywhere), a vast majority will have to leave their counties (if possible) in order to make a living for themselves, and nearly all will eventually feel the first-hand impact of this next wave of austerity we’re about to head into. Areas that were decimated by the 2008 recession are unlikely to “recover” – mainly as that recovery barely even got to materialize for the majority of us. As socialists we’re capable of building a system that actually looks after the health of working people, that makes public transport actually viable for those outside of Dublin, that actively ensures that those laid off by Bord na Móna are transitioned into fairer green jobs, and actively dissolves the antagonism between town and country. But for now we’re stuck inside, reading godawful takes until we go mental.