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Progress? Where we are, where we were....




Have we really progressed?.. a brief historical comparison of eviction methods


The human mind, it would appear, tends to take the best even out of the worst situations. This is reflected in phrases such as "Aaah it could be worse"; "At least we are not in a third world country"; "At least we aren't living a hundred years ago". In our deepest and darkest hours some sort of cognitive dissonance automatically sets in, and if it's not automatic we can be sure someone close to us will use such a phrase to comfort and console.

Usually this type of cognitive safety net holds some resonance, is in some way profoundly reasonable and as such works over time. Central to the notion is that we are more progressed, either compared to others in less "stable" parts of the world, or alternatively, than those living in previous centuries.

When it comes to the subject and the very real experiences of people facing eviction however, the reassurance of our progress holds no resonance and only those unawares of the historical facts could be comforted by the words "at least we are not living a hundred years ago".

A recent radio programme researched, produced and presented by Stephen Kerr (Human Rights Activist) has revealed that the protocols and practices involved in evictions of the late eighteen hundreds have changed very little today in many respects, and in some respects were in fact more considerate of homeowners than those of today. In terms of what has not changed, shame, sledge hammers, battering rams, groups of physically intimidating men in paramilitary dress and court orders continue to be the general tools of eviction agents such as Bailiffs, "security" firms and indeed the County Sheriff. Ultimately, the entire eviction process in the eighteen hundreds and also in the first decades of the 21st century  have been underpinned by the threat of violence. Often threats become actions.

But what of those practices and protocols that have changed? Have things changed for the better? It would seem not. In the late eighteen hundreds evictions were prohibited in the winter months and this tradition continues in Northern Ireland where evictions are prohibited in December (also in Northern Ireland there is no longer a Sheriff but an Enforcement Officer).

Regarding Sheriff's practices, again it would appear that eviction in the late eighteen hundreds could be more humane in that Sheriffs could and often did use their discretion more loosely and to the favour of the poor family. Other than one or two rare examples, the Sheriff's of today do not display a willingness to employ their broad discretion to help families. More often than not it is only when large numbers of people congregate to inhibit family evictions that Sheriffs and Bailiffs suddenly discover their powers to provide extra time to allow the homeowner to take protective actions within the courts or through negotiations with the bank.

There is one noteworthy, and ultimately uplifting, similarity between dispossessions of the late eighteen hundreds and those of today, and that is the willingness of Irish men and women to come together to resist family evictions. As much as it is often lamented that community is dead or at least dying on its feet, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Since the economic implosion in 2008 there have been a multitude of "eviction alerts" in which a call out has been made for concerned citizens to congregate at a particular home to "block the Sheriff". In each and every case, irrespective of what part of the country the alert came from, citizens from across Ireland dropped what they were  doing and answered the call.

This is our constant star, the defining trait of the Irish people. It is the spirit that has maintained us through our darkest days and will bind us together today as the black clouds of dispossession and eviction roll over our island.  Although in most respects when facing eviction there is no comfort in the notion that we have progressed, comfort must come from our willingness to support and protect each other.  


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