Ag Tógail Gairdín an Phobail / Building the People's Garden (Part 1)

In the midst of the pandemic, food banks, artists and campaigners teamed up to help families who couldn’t afford food or heat. This was just one step in a long road, from the #PeoplesProposal to guerrilla gardening and more... Seán Mac Brádaigh  |  Thu Jul 01 2021
The Iron Spirit sculpture by Gareth Moore helped raise £8k for families in need in Belfast last Christmas, as part of the #HEART auction. It was generously donated by Unison Northern Ireland and is now at home in Gairdín an Phobail, the People's Garden, in West Belfast.

Before Covid it was fashionable to blame people on benefits for everything. Then we all went on benefits - furlough, stay at home, Covid relief schemes. If nothing else, the pandemic temporarily upended the ideological war on the poor. It opened eyes to the cruelty of an economy that blames poverty on laziness and forces people into a choice between low paid jobs that are quickly being replaced by machines, or into a torturous and degrading social security regime.

Our Orwellian ‘welfare’ system has been consistently condemned as destructive. Policed by an army of administrators who cost society more over the long run than if we simply divested money from their never-ending assessments and back to work schemes and instead, paid it directly to people who don’t have enough of an income to survive.

The global system of ‘economic growth’ has led to deeper inequalities than at any other time in human history. During Covid – the biggest economic shock since the great depression – our economy has created more billionaires! In what world is that good economics?

Faced with this maddening reality, as PPR campaigners we did our little bit for economic growth with mutual aid activity inspired by the efforts of community groups and front-line workers.

In the dark and cold days of lock-down in December 2020 the Right to Work: Right to Welfare (R2W) campaign hooked up with The MAC Art Gallery, Whiterock Children's Centre, The Larder Food Bank and Marrowbone Community Centre to run a fundraiser in support of families in Belfast who couldn’t afford food or heat. Families who are working low paid jobs or being laid off by ruthless employers - condemned to perpetual poverty by the ‘economy’.

We connected people with laptops and internet access, we distributed self-care packs and held the #HEART auction - raising £8000 in a week through generous donations from 50 undervalued artists and a surge of community good will in the mouth of Christmas.

We also adapted our human rights based campaigning approach to the Covid crisis to continue to support campaigns led by experts in the result of bad economics – refugees, asylum seekers, homeless families, mental health service users, young people and people who are sick, disabled and unemployed.

The Covid-surge in such acts of collective solidarity was inspirational. It would be infinitely better of course if decision makers with power would act to tackle poverty and inequality. For the future to be brighter, we need political leaders who aren’t tied up in knots by civil servants and officials or hamstrung worrying about the next election.

We need political leaders who are humble enough to ask for help and brave enough to drive good ideas into the heart of political institutions - delivering an economy which values how good people’s lives are and how healthy our environment is.

The campaigning groups PPR organise with, and many others know this is what is required. But they aren’t prepared to simply wait for politicians to catch up. They have been busy developing a range of innovative and achievable ideas to choose from.

One such good idea is worth dissecting - the R2W’s #PeoplesProposal human rights checklist for social security decision makers.

The People’s Proposal is designed to act as a safeguard from the hunger caused by a welfare system administered by private companies like CAPITA and decision makers who are too far removed from the people whose lives are ruined by decisions they rubber stamp.

Despite being supported by every political party, every trade union, every District Council and a commitment in 2020 from the Minister for Communities, Carál Ní Chuilín, to pilot a new approach, civil servants at the Department for Communities (DFC) haven’t moved an inch in a year to implement the idea. Added to that, the current Minister, Deirdre Hargey is a strong critic of the Tory austerity agenda and was a supporter and advocate for the #PeoplesProposal in her role as Mayor of Belfast.

The DFC haven’t moved an inch. Why? Public servants aren’t bad people bent on causing misery. Both Ministers have track records fighting for marginalised communities for decades. They are undoubtedly in the system to change it. So, what’s going wrong?

Social security decision makers get up and go to work every day to follow instructions from management which they dare not deviate from or they could end up joining the dole queue. Many know the system is broken and bend rules as far as they can to support people. However, at a senior management level, too many genuinely believe, despite the daily horror stories, statistics and reports, that they are doing a good job - evidence in itself that new checks and balances are desperately needed to safeguard human rights.

I was only doing my job’ or ‘I’m trying my best’ comes as cold comfort to the families of those so desperate, they took their own lives. Those families unable to nourish their kids because a public servant rubber stamped a bad decision made by a private contractor profiteering from poverty without asking the simple question - how will this decision impact the person on the other end?

What do we do? Give up? Starve? Lobby? Protest? Ring Nolan? Mind your own and forget the rest? Phone the local elected rep? Back another political party and make sure your guys get in? Write a long-winded blog or take to Twitter? We’ll probably have to do some or all of that and more to build back better? But there are other ways too.

Part 2 of this series will present examples, both historical and contemporary, of the ‘ná habair é, dean é’ philosophy of community organising, that sees local communities empowering themselves, by digging where they stand.

Seán Brady is Assistant Director of Programmes with PPR.