Tossing politicians in at the deep end makes shallow TV
IF you’re looking for a dispiriting dispatch on the state of Irish politics and an example of documentary television at its least adventurous, look no further than tonight’s Dail on the Dole, the first in a four-part series from TV3.
We’ve been here before. It’s a desultory variation on a familiar theme: politicians slumming it for a while among the impoverished working class – or rather the impoverished not-working class. The idea is that the politicians, pushed out of their comfort zone, will supposedly gain a better insight into the lives of people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder for whom every day on social welfare is a struggle to make ends meet.
First up is Fine Gael backbencher Catherine Byrne, a former Lord Mayor of Dublin and a TD in the huge Dublin South Central constituency, which sprawls from the edge of Chapelizod to the edge of Terenure, taking in Harold’s Cross, Drimnagh, Walkinstown, Crumlin, Inchicore, Ballyfermot and Kimmage.
Byrne is parachuted into the life of Laura Spencer, a young single mother of two little girls who lives in a flat in The Liberties and gets by on €233.80-a-week in social welfare. Rent is €33.80.
Some €60 to €70 a week goes on shopping, and Laura tries to tuck €25 away for her ESB bill.
Sometimes, though, she has to borrow a few bob from her older sister Kerry, and she’s sought the help of the SVP. Reluctantly.
Parts of the flat are in a pretty bad state. One of the ceilings has “bellied” and the paint is peeling in great hanging sheets. Laura says water sometimes drips in.
“Does she know what it’s like to live on a social welfare income?” wonders Laura, who’s never met a politician in her life before meeting Byrne.
We’re never told, but Byrne does know what it’s like to grow up not having much. She still lives in Inchicore, where she was born and where she left school at 14.
“I’m as ordinary as I was when I was elected to the council,” she says. She can also connect with Laura’s efforts to better her and her children’s lot by doing a culinary arts course in the DIT in Cathal Brugha Street.
Once upon a long time ago, Byrne did one there too. “Maybe I should have stuck to the catering,” she jokes to Laura when she drops in to lend a hand. Byrne joins Laura as she gets her little girls ready for school. On the days when she’s in college, she drops them off at the breakfast club run by Liz O’Connor, who restarted it under her own steam when the original one folded due to lack of funds.
Liz, the kind of feisty, heroic woman who sprouts in The Liberties the way perfect lawns sprout in Dublin 4, feeds 20 kids every morning with food donated by local traders (a farmer also provides free eggs).
The Government doesn’t contribute a red cent, naturally.
I’ve never met Byrne, though I come from the Iveagh Buildings and lived in her constituency for 15 years prior to her becoming a TD there. It’s clear she’s a decent enough person.
What’s less clear is the point of Dail on the Dole (terrible title, by the way). Perhaps a four-part series on the doughty individualism and old-fashioned community compassion of The Liberties might have been a better way to portray working-class people struggling against government indifference and incompetence.
Beyond badgering the council to repair Laura’s ceiling (sort of) and offering vague promises to help out Liz, Byrne is, like all backbenchers, powerless to change anything. It’s a series that leaves no footprint.