Belfast Telegraph

Easy money ... but who'd want to live on The Estate?

By Gail Walker

There's been outrage at the new BBC NI reality series The Estate, a fly-on-the-wall documentary whose main characters include a single mum of five living on benefits and an alcoholic.

Sadly, though, when you get down to it, much of the anger directed towards those in Coleraine's Ballysally estate is really just the rage of Caliban at seeing its own reflection.

Strange as it may seem, we in Northern Ireland have never looked social poverty and disenfranchisement straight in the face. As an engine and recruiting ground for paramilitary violence, yes, but as a problem the same as in the sink estates of Glasgow, Liverpool and London, no - but, well, we're not like them 'uns.

In the glory days of the Troubles and the early peace, most of us were doing all right, Jack - we'd the highest disposable income in the UK thanks to all those government jobs and low housing prices.

Plus, the endless redevelopment meant that Belfast - and the rest of Northern Ireland - was buzzing. We conveniently forgot that for a stubborn minority life was a little different - joblessness, hopelessness and a dependency on the state.

As the BBC NI programme (admittedly rather condescendingly narrated by Adrian Dunbar) so vividly demonstrates, the violence may be largely gone but poverty grinds on just the same.

The sad truth is that in our minds we'd reduced poverty to the Falls, the Shankill and a few other headline-grabbing areas of Belfast. Out in the provinces, we told ourselves there were no such places.

We blinded ourselves to the fact that every town here has its Ballysally Estate - even areas like Coleraine which before the crash had some of our highest property prices.

What struck me most about The Estate was how it burrowed down into the true stories of people's lives. Despite the furore, this wasn't really a bunch of scroungers milking the state (to whit - me and you) for everything, but recognisably real men and women struggling against bad luck, happenstance and, well, life.

Yes, there's an argument to be had about benefits culture but it's easy to yell at people to "just get a job" when there are no jobs to be had. And if there is, well, you never got the education to get an interview.

At first glance, lone parent Louise raised the hackles. Five children and around £200 a week of handouts. Still, we might smugly ramble in a rather Malthusian (look it up in the dictionary) fashion about the poor having too many children and how you shouldn't have what you can't afford. It's rather harder to design an economy where a woman can get a job to feed her family and afford the childcare.

It's all too easy to look askance at Martin, the alcoholic, getting state handouts to buy his White Lightning. Rather more difficult to think how to get ill people like him off the streets and give them the chance to rebuild their lives - as he so wants to do.

You'd walk past Martin if he was lying in a doorway. But here you met him and got a real insight into his life: the pride in his humble flat; his anxiety about managing money; buying a mountain bike to try and keep him off the drink; sitting in silent contemplation with his dog, staring out the window.

We can admire, too, Jimmy and Denise Doherty who own their own house and have jobs. Sadly, to pay for their life of meagre affluence they never see each other because he works days and she works nights.

But he'd been unemployed for 10 years before his mother gave him a kick up the backside. You could see how a job, no matter how menial and poorly paid, gave him a sense of self-worth.

It is just such twists of fate - small interventions - that makes one person's life a relative success and the other a failure. But all on The Estate are admirable in their determination to forge a life out of such forbidding circumstances.

They are down but not out. And what an innovation the welfare state is. Who'd really, honestly, want to have to live off it, but what a mercy it's there.

At last BBC NI gets it right, making an honest programme which makes us think a little bit harder about life in some parts of "our wee country".

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