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Opinion: Workhouses and Direct Provision – the parallels can no longer be ignored

Direct Provision has revived the spectre of the workhouse in Ireland. It should be challenged by any Irish person that cares about equality and fairness.

Fiona Fitzsimons

THE ESTABLISHMENT OF the Irish Poor Law in 1838 resulted in the opening of 130 workhouses to cater for the destitute poor. The Direct Provision system was set up 14 years ago to accommodate asylum seekers. More than 4,300 people, including 1,600 children live in 34 accommodation centres spread across the State.

There are some obvious parallels between the old workhouse system and the current system of Direct Provision. The people who were placed in workhouses and those now placed in Direct Provision are living on the edges of society. In Ireland we have a long history of putting the people we consider inconvenient and a burden on the community, behind the walls of an institution.

In the 19th and early 20th century we defined them as the poor, the elderly, the sick, those who were mentally ill, disabled, widows, unmarried mothers, deserted wives and their children. In 21st century Ireland we have a new ‘undesirable’ category in the asylum seekers and people trafficked into our country. They arrive in Ireland, without documentation, often traumatised, and we do what we’ve always done with marginalised groups – we place them in an institution, outside the community. Again, this evokes what happened in workhouses in the past. Once people entered the Poor Law system, Irish people had an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude.

According to historian Dr Gerard Moran, conditions inside the workhouses were grim with families segregated – men, women, boys and girls separated into different groups. A harsh discipline was put in place. Punishments were handed out for using obscene language, insulting behaviour, making unnecessary noise, refusing to work, smoking and possession of tobacco, absconding from the workhouse and possession of alcohol.

Under the Direct Provision system, adults are not entitled to seek employment and are given an allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child. The effect has been to reduce anyone in receipt of Direct Provision to the status of a 19th Century ‘pauper’, with a ‘lower standard of living than those entitled to the lowest welfare benefit’.

The most common complaints about Direct Provision are very similar to complaints made over 160 years ago by former workhouse inmates in the 1840s and 50s during and immediately after the Famine.

The quality and quantity of food

Almost all those in Direct Provision are concerned about their lack of control over their own diet and nutrition. All food is catered, and families are unable to buy, prepare or cook their own food. This is happening even as the rest of the developed world reaches a consensus, that access to good food affects our long-term health.

Inmates don’t have the right to organise their daily-life and become institutionalised.
Just like the old workhouses, the Direct Provision system has meal-breaks at specific times of the day and a ‘curfew’ system at night. Unlike the workhouses, the people detained in the Direct Provision system do not have the option of leaving. They haven’t broken any laws to end up there but they are in the Direct Provision system indefinitely as they wait for their case to be concluded.

Boredom and underemployment

People everywhere define themselves by what they do. But what happens when ‘inactivity’ is forced on people? Between 1848 and 1854, 55 riots took place in the workhouses resulting in the authorities having to call in the military and police to restore order. The reason behind the riots was a reduction in the quantity and quality of food, the harsh discipline in the institution and the boredom which inmates endured. Female inmates, who comprised over two-thirds of the adult population, carried out most of the riots and insubordination. They had little or no work to occupy themselves leading one official to state ‘six months in a workhouse would be enough to demoralise an angel’. Recently we’ve begun to see protests and even lock-ins in Direct Provision centres, as forced unemployment and years of incarceration within the system has demoralised inmates.

It’s often said that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. In 2014 the system of Direct Provision has revived the spectre of the workhouse in Ireland. It should be challenged by any Irish person that cares about equality and fairness.

Fiona Fitzsimons is a founder and director of Eneclann. In 2014 she developed a successful series of expert workshops in Trinity College and the National Library of Ireland. Fiona is a columnist for History Ireland, and a regular contributor to Irish Lives Remembered and the APG Quarterly.

Contributor to this article is Dr Gerard Moran. He has published extensively on nineteenth-century Ireland and his publications include ‘ Sending Out Ireland’s Poor’, ‘Assisted Emigration to North America in the Nineteenth Century’, ‘Land, Famine, Emigration and Politics’ and ‘The Mayo Evictions of 1860’. He is joint editor of ‘Galway: History and Society’ (Dublin, 1996) and of the forthcoming’ Mayo: History and Society’.

We can work together to end this inhumane system. Add your voice to the growing numbers of people calling for the abolishment of the direct provision system https://uplift.ie/enddirectprovision/

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Fiona Fitzsimons

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