Taoiseach provides film criticism with same depth of understanding and empathy Taoiseach applies to everything

Leo Varadkar is known for many things, but media literacy is not one of them, especially where the medium of film is concerned. Previous mentions of the movies by the Taoiseach during his illustrious career in human misery politics have included calling A Christmas Carol his least favourite Yuletide film because “Tiny Tim should get a job”, and using a speech on public safety in the midst of a global pandemic as an opportunity to quote Mean Girls on a dare from Samwise Gamgee.

Varadkar has always struggled to connect to the people without engaging in cloyingly overwritten prose, disingenuous saccharine and an undisguisable sneer, which is presumably why he enjoys the work of Richard Curtis so much. Asking the leader, or indeed any member of Fine Gael, to engage with grounded and empathetic cinema about systemic mistreatment of the disadvantaged, is a bit like asking Homer Simpson to go to the ballet – the depths of his ignorance are comically shocking, as Paul Murphy discovered today.

During Parliamentary Questions this afternoon, the People Before Profit TD questioned if the Taoiseach had ever seen Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake. The question came in the context of a proposed reform to disability welfare payments, in which claimants may be assessed and categorised according to three tiers of disability allowance based on capability to work.

A Green Paper published by Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys last week proposed the introduction of a single payment system for disabled people called a Personal Support Payment, unifying different supports like Disability Allowance, Invalidity Pension and Blind Pension) with three different payment rates (or Tiers) based on the needs of disabled people. As yet no detail has been provided on how assessment of need and “ability to work” was going to be carried out, or by whom.

A similar system in Britain used the language of “welfare reform” as an excuse to make savings in the welfare budget and push disabled people into work beyond their capacity, with considerable loss to human means, wellbeing, dignity and lives.

Loach’s film captures this, with the cruelty of the system thrust into light via an account of one man’s desperate struggle to navigate it. It’s a story that would provoke outrage and empathy in almost any viewer. Almost.

Varadkar informed Murphy that he had in fact seen the film, back when he was the Minister for Social Protection – you may recall this as his “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All” era. Though the Taoiseach recommended the film, he described it as one-sided, because the characters in receipt of benefits in the film are very genuine, honest people “who need help and have done as much as they can for themselves”.

Daniel is denied Employment and Support Allowance after being deemed fit to work without the consultation of his doctor and dies of a heart attack before he can complete his appeal. The help that he needs, he is denied, that’s kind of the point of the film. His friend Katie, a single mother, certainly does as much as she can for herself, or rather, for her children – starving herself in order to feed them. Perhaps Loach should have included scenes of mothers who can afford to eat to placate viewers like Varadkar.

Though disappointed by the film’s biased depiction of people on benefits as decent human beings who deserve to be helped, Varadkar did offer an alternative, noting that the Channel 4 programme Benefit’s Street provided “a very different picture” and that, of course the truth lies “somewhere in-between”. Though the Taoiseach may find it to be overly critical of British welfare policy, any film worth its salt benefits from multiple perspectives of analysis, is the film as biased as he first found it to be? It does show an ultimately successful example of the State Waiting For Troublesome Campaigner To Die Policy, which the Irish government have employed themselves in the recent past. The Taoiseach may benefit from another watch – Daniel believes that he needs welfare to live, the State believes that he can and should work for his money, and the truth lies somewhere in between (he dies with nothing).

Groups like the Independent Living Movement Ireland have expressed concerns about the Government’s Green Party and called for a considered and coordinated response in the ongoing consultation process. At the launch of the paper, ILMI raised the following concerns:

Whilst there is an increase in payment in Tier one and Tier two, neither come close to the cost of disability in the Department’s report. 

The “obligation” to engage with INTREO and take up training or work immediately raised concerns as ILMI raised that this sounded not dissimilar to the “Work Capacity Assessments” in the UK which used the language of “welfare reform” to make savings in the welfare budget and push disabled people into work, with huge human costs and suffering. 

ILMI also raised concerns about the current capacity of mainstream employment services such as INTREO and the systemic barriers to inclusion of disabled people in the workforce, including the low expectations that systemic exclusion from employment has had on disabled people themselves. 

Cinema is, thankfully, not beholden to the same loaded expectation of ‘balance’ that the government can rely on in day-to-day media coverage. A film can be as damning and direct as it wants to be, and its message can continue to resonate after its release. Where Fine Gael are devoted to reheating old Tory policy from across the Irish Sea, seven-year-old films may find new meaning.

Incidentally, Ken Loach’s latest film arrives in Irish cinemas this weekend, and it’s also relevant for our current political climate.- Out on September 29th, The Old Oak sees BAFTA-winning director Loach return to the North East of England following his previous two films I, Daniel Blake, winner of the Palme d’Or and BAFTA Outstanding British Film awards, and Sorry We Missed You which both also shot in the region. Shooting took place across County Durham last year in locations including Murton, Easington Colliery and Horden.

THE OLD OAK is a special place. Not only is it the last pub standing, but it’s also the only remaining public space where people can meet in a once thriving mining community that has now fallen on hard times after 30 years of decline.  TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner) the landlord hangs on to The Old Oak by his fingertips, and his predicament is endangered even more when the pub becomes contested territory after the arrival of Syrian refugees who are placed in the village without any notice.  

In an unlikely friendship TJ meets a curious young Syrian Yara [Ebla Mari] with her camera. Can they find a way for the two communities to understand each other?  So unfolds a deeply moving drama about their fragilities and hopes.  

It looks like another moving film with plenty of relevant meaning to offer to Ireland’s own tensions on immigration. If the Taoiseach sees it, hopefully he goes in with an open mind, and does not mark it down for two stars on Letterboxd because none of the characters threaten to hang a Minister.

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