But by the grace of God

An Cailín Rua

EMPATHY NOT SNOBBERY Homeless people with addiction issues should be surrounded by support and empathy, not stigma and superior attitudes.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Readers of the Irish Times over the weekend might have noticed an interview with actor Cillian Murphy in the Health and Wellness section of the paper.
The actor, known for his brilliant betrayal of the ambitious, calculating Tommy Shelby in gangster drama Peaky Blinders has busy promoting a new book, ‘Ionbhá, The Empathy Book for Ireland’. Proceeds from the book, featuring reflections from a variety of contributors reflecting upon the impact that empathic actions have had on their lives, will go directly towards delivering a new programme for schools and youth work organisations called ‘Activating Social Empathy’.
The programme, part of a wider programme by researchers at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at the University of Galway chaired by Professor Pat Dolan, is designed to equip young people with skills in social and emotional learning, encouraging compassion and caring towards others, and active citizenship. This, they suggest, is rooted in evidence that empathy education will help to curb aggression, hate speech and negative profiling.
Empathy, Dolan suggests, is ‘about the other’. Empathy is different to things like wellbeing or resilience, and is about listening, understanding, respecting and valuing other people’s points of view and life experiences. Murphy notes that empathy training also results in stronger academic performances, and results from a pilot programme have shown that the programme increases willingness to do good among young people, increasing ‘pro-social behaviour’ and boosting levels of cognitive empathy, meaning they were better able to understand other people’s perspectives and share their emotions. Empathy is quite different to sympathy, and arguably more powerful, because it is rooted in a fundamental belief that we are all equal.
Recent headlines in our local papers suggests that young people are not the only ones that might benefit from empathy training.
A recent meeting of the Westport/Belmullet Municipal District resulted in some disgraceful comments from councillors making the news, among them, references to ‘undesirables’ not being wanted in Westport.
This comment was in relation to a proposed new facility on Golf Course Road for homeless people with addiction issues, and the councillors have ‘demanded’ that representatives of the Peter McVerry Trust appear before them to outline their long-term plans for the building, which currently houses Ukrainian refugees.
The contemptuous we-don’t-want-your-type-around-here discourse was laden with othering, dripping with snobbery, and while the Cathaoirleach of the district made a mild attempt to mitigate – ironically by empathising with his colleagues – his reference to ‘saints and sinners’ served to further stigmatise people with addiction issues. Addiction does not discriminate, it is not a ‘sin’, and there but for the grace of God go any of us.
One councillor stated that he did not want to see an ‘import’ of ‘these individuals’ (remember, we are talking about humans here) into the town with no rehabilitation or support services. It is a valid point, but the fact that such desperately needed services are so sorely lacking across the country is a result of government policy.
Perhaps politicians could channel a bit more energy into demanding that such services be resourced, so that we might be better placed as communities to support people with issues and prevent situations like this from arising in the first place.
It is understandable that residents might be nervous, and community consultation from the outset and collaboration is vital for projects like this to succeed. It is nevertheless alarming that public representatives are comfortable expressing this type of disdain for their fellow people in a public forum with media present.
It is frightening and sad that no-one in the room apparently stopped to consider what might have led people to this place in their lives, and how the support of a community in what was, a decade ago, named as the Best Place to Live in Ireland might make an immeasurable difference to their futures, and become a very positive story for the award-winning town of Westport.
I am relieved that my own town has not made headlines like these, and I am confident that if it did, such comments would be loudly and widely rejected by the community, but the dialogue in Westport shows there is no room for complacency.
The thin edge of the wedge can widen quickly, so let’s hope ‘these individuals’ can, before their next meeting, reflect upon their privilege. And let’s hope that should their worst fears come to pass and people with addiction issues might come to lovely Westport to gain a roof over their heads, the good people of the town – of which there are many – and indeed Golf Course Road, might find it in their hearts to welcome their fellow citizens with a little compassion, kindness and empathy.