Emer O’Kelly on the beggars controversy in the Sunday Independent

Charity ends at home when it comes to nationality of beggars
We seem to tolerate beggars so long as they are passive and, of course, not foreigners, writes Emer O’Kelly

Sunday January 09 2011

THE Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010, published by the Minister for Justice last year, will criminalise people who beg within 10 metres of the entrance of a business premises.

Sounds good? You probably think so if you have felt irritated, intimidated, guilty, or embarrassed as you pass by a fellow human being seated on an icy pavement, holding a badly written note which says “Irish and homeless. Please help”.

Actually, one suspects that the passing of the Bill will be yet another cosmetic exercise: a piece of paper on the statute book, unsupported by the means or capacity to enforce its measures.

Take two Dublin city representatives, both from the Dublin North West constituency, both in Fine Gael. Gerry Breen is Lord Mayor of Dublin, and a city councillor. Bill Tormey is a city councillor. Lord Mayor Breen talks of female beggars on Dublin streets “begging like entrepreneurs”. And he believes we have to “protect” the 25,000 people working in retail jobs in the Dublin city area from these “entrepreneurs.”

In the Irish Times last week he talked of encountering eight beggars in a five-minute walk. They were mainly Roma, he told the newspaper, and there was a degree of intimidation in this type of organised begging.

In a radio interview with Newstalk on December 23, he said how every morning, he sits in a cafe near the Mansion House and he sees the beggars “arriving at their place of work,” and setting themselves up for the day. I know the cafe, and I think I know the beggars he means; they do indeed set themselves up for the day, and seem to work in shifts. Though they’re male and obviously Irish.

The Lord Mayor was walking with friends in central Dublin a few weeks ago. They were approached by a middle-aged man, obviously intoxicated. He was “easily ushered off”. But what the Lord Mayor found offensive, and from his tone of voice on December 23 on Newstalk radio, what he also found positively terrifying was the pair of young women who also importuned him and his friends. They were wearing long skirts and were, apparently, quite clearly Roma.

Lord Mayor Breen’s party colleague, Dr Bill Tormey, on the other hand, says that we are already well protected from “aggressive” begging by existing public order legislation. And he objects to attempts to single out Roma.

A caller to Liveline last week referred to Roma women as the “greatest thieves and pickpockets that ever walked”. The caller also spoke of a “plague” of Roma gypsies in Ireland, and said they should be “rounded up and shipped out”. He sounded old enough to be able to remember what used to be said about Irish beggars in English cities; but memory can be selective.

Another caller who travels frequently to Romania said that the Romanians are charming people . . . who dislike their Roma citizens as much as the Irish dislike them. It’s possible to argue of course, that that’s hardly a definition of charm. It’s like claiming that we Irish are charming because we loathe Travellers.

I dislike seeing beggars on our streets; and there are an increasing number of them. I don’t give to them . . . ever. If drugs are the cause (or result) of their homelessness, or if they’re scamming homelessness because of drug addiction, it’s not going to help to give them money towards the price of a fix. And obviously, if they’re part of a gang of scammers, as is being claimed about the Roma beggars on Irish streets, you’re being a bloody fool if you give to them.

Late last summer on a Friday mid-morning, I counted no fewer than 11 beggars seated along Molesworth Street (for non-Dubliners, it’s a short centre-city street of charming 18th-Century houses near the Dail). It was frightening: one under each parking metre, one close to each rubbish bin, and several more at lampposts in between; and yes, I felt intimidated. Just as I feel squeamish when I see the beggar (or possibly there are several who do this) who sits in the freezing cold in his bare feet; I’m told it’s a scam. But if it is, it’s a damned dedicated, uncomfortable one in our current weather. You’d almost admire it. )

A few months, ago I saw a small girl who looked Roma begging at a parking metre on Parnell Square in Dublin. She looked miserable and waif-like. A few minutes later, an older girl and a woman, possibly their mother, arrived and they greeted each other affectionately and boisterously. They then unpacked their bags, and settled on the grass outside the Garden of Remembrance to enjoy a substantial picnic. I was tickled pink.

On the other hand, I feel furious every time the woman who begs in Duke Street at the side door of Marks & Spencer blocks my way: she’s very aggressive, dragging a pram along, standing in front of you, and shouting “I need your help”. She’s Irish.

But the callers to Liveline seem not to be bothered by the many Irish beggars on our streets. They are acceptable, it seems, as long as they are “passive” and, of course, not foreigners.

The callers all knew for a fact that the Roma begging is an organised scam, with vans pulling up, crutches and other badges of misery and disability being passed out, able-bodied and healthy people removing their shoes to look destitute.

In fact, “everyone” knows that they are trafficked into Ireland by the planeload just to go into business as beggars: they’re not “real” beggars.

Oddly enough, nobody who called in had actually seen a van disgorging its cargo of able-bodied men and women, or seen them disrobing and sticking on sores (as the beggars do in India). But they all knew somebody who knew somebody . . . And of course, Irish beggars never swap babies to elicit sympathy; perish the thought.

So let’s all go and light candles in thanks for the purity and honesty of Irish beggars who are meek and know their place, and none of whom has ever picked a pocket as an habitual petty criminal, or to feed a drug habit, or has abused a pensioner who ignored them.

I would like to see legislation that would put scam merchants off the streets. I would also like to see services put in place to ensure that no needy person would ever have to sit abjectly on a pavement, begging for alms as though we lived in the year 1500.

In the meantime, why not treat female Roma beggars the same way we treat drunken Irish male beggars? Ignore them; tell them to piss off; or give them a couple of euro.

Or maybe it’s easier to talk about them as a “plague”, the term which is defined in the dictionary as a “pestilence” or an “intensely malignant epidemic”. Or does that make your blood run cold?

Sunday Independent