“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to Fly by those nets.” 
James Joyce

Social supermarkets are the 21st Century famine roads

Social supermarkets are the 21st Century famine roads

In the 1800s Ireland was famine ridden, millions of people died or emigrated and the country was at a loss for how to cope. The government of the time took a strict laissez faire attitude and refused to provide welfare or support for those suffering.

Instead they created ‘work programmes’ to build useless roads to nowhere across the Irish countryside before tearing them down to start again. Men were forced to do this literally pointless labour in order to qualify for small serving of maize to feed themselves and their starving families.

It’s easy to think that we as a society have moved on from these 1800s attitudes. However the increased use of foodbanks, the increased pressure on ‘benefit scroungers’ and growing inequality show that these attitudes are alive and well.

The Apex Living Centre in Derry. (Photo: Stephen Latimer, BBC)

The Apex Living Centre in Derry. (Photo: Stephen Latimer, BBC)

Northern Ireland's first ‘social supermarkets’ are set to open this month.

Social supermarkets tend to have two broad aims:

  1. Reduce food waste by selling products that are out-of-date but still fine to use.

  2. Provide low-income people with affordable reliable food.

At its surface level these social supermarkets are well intentioned. Reducing food waste and providing affordable food for everyone.

However, a Department for Communities spokeswoman states that the supermarket scheme will give people "access to food on condition that they take up the other services that will help them move out of poverty".

This attitude exists under the false assumption that individuals are in poverty because of their own doing. Time and time again we hear testimonies of people at food banks delaying their visit and going hungry for longer due to embarrassment and shame. For people who have not eaten in days or weeks, this is their absolute last desperate plea for help.

Yet despite all this, the myth still persists that they just need to be “helped” out of poverty.

This false reality works on the assumption that these people are just not doing something that would fix it all. This bare-faced refusal to accept that our system leaves some people behind through no fault of their own is nothing short of abuse.

This kind of cruelty, the kind that looks at the homeless, the starving and the poor and says “This is your fault” is one that many hoped we’d left in the past.

Everyone in the UK and Ireland is well aware of the Great Famine which took place in Ireland between 1845 – 1852. It is arguably one of the most defining historical points of modern Ireland.

An 1841 census of Ireland (then both North and South were still one country within the UK) of just over eight million people. 2016 censuses showed that North and South Ireland have a combined population of 6.6 million.

It is common knowledge that the 20th century marked a period of steep population increase across the world. Ireland remains one of the few countries who population remains lower than the 1800s.

The famine also saw a huge amount of Irish migration; a cultural trend that continues to this day. So much so that some even argue in favour of giving the Irish Diaspora a vote in presidential elections.

Irish republicans often refer to the 1845 famine as a ‘genocide’ and cite the fact that large quantities of food were exported from Ireland during this time while thousands starved. In fact – during the 1840 Irish famine ports were closed to alleviate some of the starvation.  Another lesser known fact from the Great Famine is the existence and creation of ‘Famine Roads’. (I have also seen these referred to as ‘Black Roads’ I don’t know of any historical standard).

People were forced to build pointless roads in exchange for food.

People were forced to build pointless roads in exchange for food.

The Famine Roads were “the result of the forced labour of the Irish peasantry, who, under the strictures of the Poor Law and the reigning laissez-faire economic theory of the day, were made to work in exchange for food during the Great Famine.” Many hundreds of thousands of "feeble and starving men" were kept digging holes and breaking up roads, which was doing no service.

So why did the UK government make these feeble and starving men dig and break up roads to no end? Because to the very core of their ideology they believed that no-one should get anything for ‘free’.

It seems cruel and pointless to force men to dig and dismantle roads endlessly in order to get a portion of maize or small payment to help their families in desperate times.  However, the actions of the modern day welfare state are not entirely dissimilar. The DWP forces people to travels miles and miles for regular interviews and sets incredibly strict minimums on the amount of jobs people must apply for.

The Guardian reports thousands have died after being found ‘fit for work’, the Independent reports of an anorexic woman found dead in a freezing flat after having her benefits cut. In 2016 an 18-year-old killed himself after being belittled and mistreated by DWP employees for being unable to find employment.

The UK government claims these drives are necessary to tackle ‘benefit scroungers’ and those ‘abusing’ unemployment and sickness benefits. However a National Audit Office report found that benefit sanctions cost more than they save.  Furthermore an oft cited study claims that tax avoidance and evasion costs the UK taxpayer significantly more than any benefit fraud.

The attacks on benefit ‘cheats’ are ideologically driven. It is not a matter of pounds and pennies but a hardcore belief that people are not entitled to any help from the state.

In the same way that we look back on the callousness of 1800s British governments with disgust, future historians will look back on us and wonder what kind of uncaring, greedy society would rather thousands of people die – through starvation, malnourishment and suicide - just so a handful of people don’t get something for ‘nothing’.

Nobody exists in a vacuum. Whether one works or not they contribute to society in numerous other ways. Supporting those people is not giving "something for nothing," it's acknowledging that work isn’t everything and that no one deserves to starve, go cold or be left behind.


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