One of the most powerful scenes in the coruscating new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake is set in a food bank in Newcastle. Struggling single mother Katie opens a tin of beans and begins to wolf down the cold contents on the spot, overcome first by hunger and then by shame at her actions.
Her friend, the film’s central character, Dan, assures her she has nothing to be ashamed of, and the kindly staff also seek to comfort her. The problem, Paul Laverty’s script is telling us, is not with the facility or with the people in it, the problem is with the system that has brought Katie to this extreme.
The growth of food banks, including in Dublin, has been one of the most striking features of austerity Ireland over the last few years, and, as in Newcastle, it reflects the same systemic failure to guarantee people’s most basic needs.
In 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, the Department of Social Protection estimated that 600,000 people were experiencing food poverty in Ireland, up from 450,000 in 2010. The manager of the Capuchin Day Centre on Bow Street, Smithfield, which operates a food-distribution facility, has spoken of “the new food poor … Many have a house or a home, but don’t have anything in the fridge.”
A beneficiary of that Capuchin Day Centre describes hunger as “Similar to some sort of madness, I guess; a serene madness. You become a little bit dizzy, a little bit lightheaded.”
As Dara Quigley wrote earlier this year, while she celebrated the community solidarity that has underpinned the upsurge in food banks in Dublin, “The government lacks the self-awareness to realise that [then] Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton should be turning up at the closings of food banks, not the openings.”
This was a reference to the fact that Minister Burton opened a food bank in Glasnevin in September 2015 and declared herself “very pleased” to do so. She went on to say that “I think this is a great form of community effort … which actually means the business community can provide first quality stock which can then be used to supply dinners … to people who need them.”
Why people should be so hungry as to require private charity in the first place, and why the state was failing to provide this most basic of social safety nets, were questions not addressed by the leader of the Labour Party. Perhaps she was distracted by the heavy security presence required to shield her from protesters.
The protests arose, of course, because of water charges, but also because of measures specifically overseen by Minister Burton, such as last year’s cuts to the lone-parent allowance, forcing single parents to seek employment or training once their child reached seven years of age.
The horrors of forcing people to seek often non-existent employment opportunities, while cutting the benefits they need to barely survive, are actually the central theme of I, Daniel Blake.
It was therefore highly appropriate that an actor, Ricky Tomlinson, who made his name in earlier Ken Loach films such as Raining Stones and Riff-Raff, wrote a letter that was read out at a recent protest in Dublin over the guilty verdict given to a teenager for “falsely imprisoning” Joan Burton in her car in Jobstown last year.
Tomlinson wrote, “It is an absolute insult to find that a politician trapped in the comfort of [a] car is deemed to be in prison. As Jim Royle [Tomlinson’s most famous TV creation] would say – ‘Imprisonment my arse!’”
Before he was an actor, Tomlinson, from Liverpool, was a trade-union activist and was jailed for his role in a 1972 strike to secure better wages and working conditions in the construction industry. He knows what real imprisonment means.
Food banks are a necessary evil in Ireland, and elsewhere, in 2016. The necessity for them should not blind us to the evils of a system that consigns the most fundamental of human needs to the care of private charity.