Saturday, August 08, 2020

By Kevin Egan.

As an Offaly native living here in Roscommon, I’ve seen plenty of texts, memes and messages over the past 24 hours, referring to how my home county has been forced back into lockdown, alongside Laois and Kildare. Some have been quite amusing, some a lot less so, but in the main, the general spirit has been one of understanding that when it comes to a situation like this, any county should be thinking “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Certainly Roscommon has had problems with Covid-19 outbreaks in meat factories already this year, as reported here back in May, and today local TD Denis Naughten spoke of his frustration that more wasn’t done to address this issue.

But since the announcement has been made that all three counties have to live under much more severe restrictions than the rest of Ireland, there has been understandable local frustration that as crude an instrument as county boundaries have been used as a parameter.

Most Roscommon Herald readers wouldn’t be aware, but already in Offaly there is an unspoken divide between the opposite ends of the county. In the South and West, where hurling would be the primary sport, there would be little or no natural affinity with Tullamore or Edenderry, the large towns that are at the epicentre of this recent outbreak of Covid-19 infection. It’s no different to here in Roscommon, where Boyle and Monksland are in the same county but otherwise worlds apart in most things, aside from affiliation to primrose and blue county colours.

It’s similar in Kildare, where Brady’s Ham is located in Timahoe, a long way from the commuter towns like Leixlip and Maynooth that have been dragged into this mini-lockdown. There too, there are geographical divides, and there are large communities that have had zero or near-zero rates of incidence of coronavirus. My own roots are in West Offaly, which is some distance from these current outbreaks, and there’s no doubt it would suit the government’s bidding if I was to turn my focus on that sense of frustration at being grouped in with those hotspots.

Perhaps it’s my long history of standing on football terraces shouting on North Offaly footballers like Peter Brady (Edenderry), Karol Slattery (Gracefield) and Niall McNamee (Rhode), but that’s not where my frustration lies. Instead, I’ll fall in line with this publican from Maynooth.

Or to put it another way:


There has never been an era when governments, either in Ireland or worldwide, have been more aware of the power of controlling the story and trying to train the gaze of the general public in a certain direction. The constant sense of outrage about house parties and incidents like the street party in Kilkee, Co. Clare, is part of that. Whether it’s a government minister, or a representative of NPHET, they’ll be quick to talk of personal responsibility, and how people must make the right choices.

That’s fair, but it must work both ways. All summer, Irish people have been told to holiday at home. Many people in Kildare, Laois and Offaly did that, and planned to do that over the next fortnight. Now again they’ve been told to stay home, but there is no pressure being put on providers of accommodation to refund booking fees and deposits. Many are, out of a combination of a strong sense of social responsibility and goodwill, but many more are not.

That’s before we get to the issue of the meat factories – how inspections were flagged in advance in order to reduce the risk of inspectors inadvertently exposing themselves to the very thing they were supposedly checking for, or how the low pay and poor conditions of those working in the industry meant that staying home if they felt under the weather simply wasn’t an option.

Greg Ennis, from trade union SIPTU, spoke to RTÉ Radio 1′s Morning Ireland and said:

“You have a situation where the conditions of employment of workers is extremely poor, where 95% of the workers in the meat industry do not have sick pay schemes and that puts people in the situation who earn slightly above the minimum wage that maybe if they are carrying suspicion of illness, they are forced into work because they have nothing else to rely on.

“We need to do more, we need now a situation where blanket testing across all meat and food processing plants is the order of the day. We need a situation where if there is suspected cases of Covid, that workers are taking out of danger and sent home without loss of earnings”.

The problem is that putting in place safeguards like this are difficult, and expensive. Taking on the meat industry lobby is not something that Irish governments want to do – or have ever wanted to do. Blaming young people for house parties, or blaming hard-pressed families for wanting to go on that short break that they’ve already paid for, or shutting down GAA activity in large capacity stadiums like Bórd na Móna O’Connor Park, is cheap and easy.

So while I consider myself part of the Roscommon community now, and very happy to be, I hope that readers will forgive me for pulling on my green, white and gold jersey today. I do it to stand with my own people, from every corner of Offaly, North and South, and say that the outrage here isn’t that Ferbane, Shannonbridge and Birr are locked down alongside Tullamore and Edenderry. The scandal is that a widely-predicted scenario was allowed to develop at all, purely because it’s easier to lock down scared people than it is to enforce safe working conditions for low-paid workers.


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