Thursday, January 8, 2009

A people neglected - Tony Gregory's North Inner City Dublin

(My article on the North Inner City in the 1970s and 1980s appeared in The Evening Herald on 7th January 2009 in a feature marking the death of Tony Gregory TD):

To many people today, Dublin's North Inner City is characterised by the Irish Financial Services Centre and the O2 concert venue.

Neither existed in the North Inner City which, in the 1970s and early 1980s, shaped Tony Gregory's subsequent political career.

The main public building of note, more dreary then than today was the still-dreary Busaras.

In the 1970s, when Tony Gregory was a teacher and community activist working his way into local politics, families lived in dreadful conditions.

At the time I lived in a flat in Upper Sherrard Street. My journey home each evening brought me past old Georgian tenements from which you could smell and sense utter poverty and deprivation.

Fr Peter McVerry, speaking at a Combat Poverty exhibition in 2007, explained far better than I can what conditions were like only 30 years ago:

"I went to live in the old Summerhill flats in 1974.  They were just awful.  They were small, the only heating was an open fire in the sitting room, Dublin Corporation had obviously never been told that sound-proofing had been invented, and the place was crawling with rats, rats the size of little kittens and immune from every poison ever invented.   Parents would tell you of waking up in the morning and finding a rat on the baby's cot.  

"Some blocks of flats had to share an outside toilet and the children had to be washed in the local Sean McDermott St swimming pool, as they had no baths or showers."

While the poor had the same rights as everyone else on paper, these rights meant little enough in practice, as that extract makes clear.

I remember Gregory as a community activist coming in to borrow a few minutes' use of our photocopier  in the National Social Service Council in Leeson Street. Needless to say, our masters in the Department of Health knew nothing of this.

Today, community bodies have their own photocopiers and staff but at that time this rarely happened. To pursue community activism in places like the North Inner City as people like Tony Gregory, Mick Rafferty and Fergus McCabe did, you had to have immense faith in what you were doing because little or no encouragement came from official Ireland.
At the time, the National Social Service Council was establishing what are now called Citizens Information Centres to tell people about their rights. I still remember the protests from one puffed-up minor official in the North Inner City because women, living in the conditions mentioned above, were now actually looking for their entitlements. Far better, he argued, to tell them nothing - that way they would look for nothing.

In this scenario of depressing poverty people turned, in too many cases, to drink or drugs. The heroin epidemic of the 1970s ravaged the North Inner City with precious little being done about it by officialdom. A social worker who tried to alert his boss to what was going on had his report thrown back at him. There is nothing I can do about this, he was told, so don't be sending me reports about it.

The outside world seemed to care about this area of poverty and unemployment only when people's property was robbed from their cars while they were sitting at traffic lights.
One has to wonder how many of the crime problems of today can be traced back to that indifference and to the failure to help families lost in poverty.
Nonetheless, the 1970s was also a period of social optimism and people like Combat Poverty and Kilkenny Social Services (Sr Stanislaus Kennedy was a leading influence in both) raised awareness of the need for change.

"They demolished Summerhill and Gardiner St. and Sean McDermott St in 1980," Fr McVerry recalled in that speech to Combat Poverty. He moved to Ballymun and it says a lot about the grinding poverty and dreadful conditions in the North Inner City that "after Summerhill, the Ballymun flats were paradise."  
But the North Inner City was no paradise. Poverty and unemployment remained high and in the 1980s the country entered a decade of cutbacks as it tried to cope with a frightening national debt.

When Tony Gregory was first elected to the Dáil in 1982, he held the balance of power. Charles Haughey, determined to form the next government, came looking for his support, the outcome was the Gregory Deal.

Tony Gregory could have looked for, and would certainly have got, a junior ministry - a terrific prize for a newcomer to the Dáil.

Instead he looked for, and was promised, a range of measures which included specific numbers of jobs and houses for his constituents.

But Haughey's government didn't last and so the Gregory Deal fell by the wayside.

Yet the people knew Gregory was on their side and they knew he was absolutely genuine. That's why they voted him back in election after election. He was as far removed as you can get from some of those politicians who strut about their constituencies with little or no appreciation of what life is like for many of those whom they claim to represent.
Gregory remained involved with the North City Centre Community Action Project, founded in 1978 and one of the oldest such projects in the state.

He brought a sense of pride to an area which could so easily have slid into a depression. He lived through a second heroin epidemic. He got deeply involved with local efforts to boost education, training and jobs. He was as much a part of the area as a brick in the wall. If you wanted to meet one of his right hand men such as Mick Rafferty you didn't have to seek him out: you would probably bump into him walking down the street.

The North Inner City still has many problems but there is no doubt that these would be immeasurably worse, and the area's capacity to deal with them weaker, but for Tony Gregory's relentless work since the 1970s.

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