Self-empowerment Begins At Home

jerrytwomeyshoplocal

Shop-owner Jerry Twomey, Sullivan’s Quay, Cork (Pic: Denis Scannell/Irish Examiner)

As we sift through the wreckage of yet another blundering budget courtesy of an impotent and creatively bankrupt Government, the feelings of anger, despair and, worst of all, powerlessness amongst ordinary citizens are only too palpable. The scant few measures aimed at supporting SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises – which covers the bulk of the local, Irish food sector) were aimed at those targetting export markets; those who rely on the domestic market alone were ignored. Actually, not ignored but hammered even further, for example, the €1 tax increase on a bottle of wine is very wounding indeed to local independent wine retailers and also to small restaurant and cafe businesses who offer wine on their menus.

It must have seemed an easy one on the surface for the politicos – who on earth would dare to cavil about this wine tax increase as being more outrageous than, say, an unthinkably ugly move like reducing the respite carers allowance. (Oh, they did that too.) Indeed, [bear with my sketchy memory on this one – details fuzzy, fundamentals sound] a few years ago, when Labour attacked a Fine Gael suggestion that just such a tax increase on wine be considered, Finance Minister Noonan made some sneering remark to the effect that ‘it wasn’t an issue in [named a working  class suburb of Limerick] but probably would be in [named a middle class suburb]’, the implication being any anger at such a move was no more than selfishness on the part of the pampered middle classes as Noonan played his ‘man of the ordinary folks’ card.

Leaving aside the patronising assumption that working class people don’t ‘do wine’, it was presumably pure political cynicism that saw wine being hit with that massive increase instead of cigarettes. As a smoker myself, I would have complained not one little bit but a nicotine addict can become very cranky if deprived and Joe Duffy’s Liveline would have combusted if ciggies had taken the bigger hit instead.

But that’s just the surface thinking. Let’s peel back a few layers. We now have the highest tax on wine of any country in the EU. How does this move do anything other than hammer the small independent wine retailers who invariably offer superior choice to the multiples but also are not practicing below-cost selling as so many of the multiples do. Furthermore, profit made by the independents stays largely in Ireland, benefitting all of us.

It would appear this particular sector have nowhere near the same lobbying power as some of the more powerful vested interests such as the Multiples with their below cost selling of cheap beer, the Vintners Federation and their closed shop restricted licenced trade or the large multinational Spirit producers yet putting a little more pain in that direction would have yielded far more tax income and would have had health benefits for the nation as a whole. (Alcoholics will invariably drink anything but in the heel of the hunt, decent wine usually ends up being, by and large, the choice of the slightly more restrained drinker.)

How about restaurants? Restaurants are already struggling or  worse, actually closing; we’ve lost some great ones already this year including The Chop House, in Lismore, and Chapter 40, in Killarney, to name two off the top of my head. Can you imagine for a moment this wine increase does anything other than make it harder still for them to survive. A figure, I saw in the immediate aftermath was a projected €12.5k addition to one well-known restaurants annual outgoings.

Again, a reverse snobbery is often at play here. A mass restaurant culture is still in relative infancy in Ireland, dining out still viewed with deep suspicion in many quarters if overindulged other than to mark special occasions. But that is not the case in the rest of the world. If we hope to lure punters here for The Gathering next year, they won’t be coming to balm out on our beaches in the baking hot sun; going by weather trends over the last decade, they’re likely to be spending a lot of time indoors. Neither will most of them be inclined to spend the night in a pub skulling hideously overpriced pints (of mostly foreign beer, Guinness, Murphy’s etc) or, god help ’em, drinking some of the now even more expensive piss that passes for wine in most Irish pubs.

An Irish pub is a uniquely enjoyable experience but most tourists are ultimately more concerned about food ie eating in restaurants. The way this Government is operating, those establishments serving food of a standard likely to appeal to tourists, of a standard that would encourage them to return, are being slowly but surely forced out of business.

Irish produce is becoming internationally renowned and with it, a growing realisation that there are many Irish chefs who know how to make more than a decent fist of presenting it on a plate – yes, we are really learning how to cook very well across the board, no longer relying on a handful of talented cooks to cover the vast mulitude of culinary sins. The Government/Big Agribiz (I defy you to slip a piece of paper between that pairing) has no problem harnessing that growing positive image for their own marketing uses. Harvest2020, the blueprint for the future of Irish agriculture and almost entirely drafted by Big Agribiz, for example, includes a  patronising nod to the ‘Artisan Food Sector’ but State policy continues to hammer this sector in real terms.

Agriculture Minister Coveney is more than happy to spend thousands being photographed at the stalls of small producers at Farmer’s Markets and Agricultural Shows but he gets his real jollies from the export figures of our Big Food Conglomerates. Sure, they certainly provide jobs and put a much better gloss on our battered GNP but meanwhile those smaller businesses, restaurants and producers, who do most of all to build the rep the big boys trade on, well, they continue to get nothing but the shitty end of the stick, this wine increase just the latest example of gross shortsightedness in Govt thinking, of an utter failure to join the dots. We can only assume no one in Finance thought for a minute to ask Failte Ireland or Bord Bia for an opinion on such a move.

Shish Kebab, says you, The Swashbuachaill is of an exceedingly bleak temperament this morn, what on earth has all this to do with the above title of the post? Well, the photo above of Jerry Twomey, proprietor of a small local convenience store in Cork city was used to illustrate an article I recently wrote for the Irish Examiner that (in tandem with a lovely elegaic piece by Dave Kenny) attracted extraordinary interest in social media and in many of my subsequent personal encounters during the following weeks. It really appeared to strike a nerve and it was more than sheer nostalgia.

The article was about the plight of the small local retail outlets who are being decimated by this perfect storm of global recession, large suburban shopping centres and the near-total strangulation of credit flow from the hollow institutions that pass for our banks these days. It didn’t make for pretty reading but at the very end of the piece, Michael Creedon, proprietor of the very wonderful but also struggling Bradley’s, on Cork’s North Main St, an independent off-licence, wine store and retailer of some of the finest local, Irish food products to be found in the country made a very telling point – all these external forces are conspiring against the small Irish retailer or producer but ultimately it is the choice of every single Irish citizen as to where we shop that makes the ultimate difference. It is us who are turning our backs on small, local Irish businesses to put money in the pockets of the Multiples and large High St chains, so many of them foreign-owned.

So, why not try it out? Why not spend a week considering absolutely every single purchase you make before you make it and, if it is not Irish, see if an Irish alternative is available? Instead of going to the big multiple supermarkets to shop (especially those whose that are not Irish) for everything, why not look at the alternatives. Buy meat from a small, independent craft butcher instead – it will almost always be of superior quality as they tend to sell hung, aged meat which tastes far better while supermarkets put meat on the shelves almost as soon as it is slaughtered so they don’t lose a single cent (meat loses weight when aged, weight equals money).

Buy fruit and vegetables, eggs, poultry and meat directly from the producers, where possible, at Farmer’s Markets, Country Markets or direct from the farm (check out Ella McSweeney’s wonderful initiative Your Field, My Fork for a local farmer in your area selling directly to the public; better still, persuade a local farmer to consider signing up to the site, it’s completely free!).

Buy fresh Irish fish. One of the most appalling statistics I came across in recent times is that we, an island nation with access to some of the most desirable seafood in the world, treasured around the globe, import just as much seafood as we export. But, we’re not talking like with like: we export exquisite fresh fish,  mussels, oysters and so on but import cheap canned tuna, nasty prawns from the environmentally disastrous fish farms of South East Asia, the list goes on; even some of our own Irish companies are selling frozen fish, Atlantic caught, yes, but from a part of the Atlantic nearer to South America than to us.

Buy wine from the small independent wine retailers, not from the big Multiples who so often sell inferior product at below-cost prices to lure the consumer in. In fact, restrict your supermarket shopping to those imported essentials you cannot obtain elsewhere.

Buy genuinely Irish beer – craft beers made by small Irish craft brewers. Certainly, it costs more than those slabs of horse piss to be had for a pittance but the curious thing is you don’t need to drink as much – with a quality beer, for example, pretty much most of the offerings from the Irish Craft Brewing industry, you drink for taste and flavour as much as effect, you find yourself savouring it.

Neither should you restrict this practice to food and drink alone, try it in every area of your expenditure. That won’t always be possible, we import so much, but where it is, doing so will make a positive difference to all of us. And, guess what, Mr Noonan? If we import less, it also has a positive impact on GNP!

I realise before anyone ever raises it, that cost is an issue here but this is very much about recognising the difference between price and value. Furthermore, consider this oft cited fact from a study by London’s New Economics Foundation that found that “every £10 spent at a local food business is worth £25 for the local area, compared with just £14 when the same amount is spent in a supermarket. That is, a pound (or dollar, peso, or rupee) spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy.”

How does that work? Well, if you go to Tesco or Marks and Sparks and part with your hardearned cash it goes into the till and then after paying suppliers and wages, profits head off to Britain. If you go to your local butcher and buy meat from him, he then might go to the local mechanic and pay for his car service, the mechanic in turn goes to the pub and buys a few pints (of Irish craft beer, those pubs are out there, seek them out!), the publican, in turn goes to …. Well, I’m sure you get the picture.

In other words, while it may cost a little more in the short term, the benefits to every citizen in this land are immediate and infinitely more longlasting. It provides jobs in a way that Goverment policy appears utterly incapable of doing at the moment. It promotes a spirit of community and fosters a sense of interdependence that this Government appear hellbent on destroying through impotence and cowed submission to external influences. That spirit is one of the few positives we can still hold on to.

Finally, it is a first step to a path of genuine self-sufficiency whereby we learn to support ourselves rather than desperately crossing our fingers and hoping the global economy will pick up enough that we may scramble for a few more crumbs falling from the table, hysterically raising the hemlines of our corporate tax short skirt. Shop local, shop Irish and, if you’re still reading, thanks for bearing with me for such an exhaustive rant. And if you’ve got the time, email, phone or tweet your local TDs and ask them why they continue to give substantially less than two shits about small, local Irish businesses. Other than when they present as opportunities for a nice photo, that is.

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7 comments on “Self-empowerment Begins At Home

    • jozeemac says:

      thank you very much, Dave, do pass it on, not as a sop to my ego but it would be lovely to get some real impetus behind a #whynotbuyirishforaweek campaign, trust all is well with you out here on the precipice of freelancism! j

    • jozeemac says:

      thought I replied to this, Dave, but …. thanks for your response, would be great if you could pass it on, not as a sop to my ego but it would be great to get some real impetus behind a #buyirishforaweek campaign, hope you’re surviving out there in the precarious world of freelancism! j

  1. I so agree with you. Your rant sounds like my rant, I canvas for local shopping as we will eventually end up without a choice.
    I was horrified at the double page ad in this months Food and Wine magazine for Tescos which isn’t even an Irish supermarket. For a publication that should support Irish businesses it doesn’t add up.
    have a good weekend!
    Karen

    • jozeemac says:

      thanks, Karen, going to read yours and begin following your blog, always very fond of the LC, have stayed in the past and was in the shop briefly last wknd and met you briefly at the Belling Awards last year in the West Cork hotel although you hotfooted it out of my ambit fairly lively when I took out my camera 🙂 Looking forward to reading your rant and keep fighting the good fight! j

  2. Vernita says:

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that
    over again. Anyway, just wanted to say excellent blog!

    • jozeemac says:

      thank you very much, Vernita! And I hear your pain on the comment-munching front – am forever losing some of my finest/wittiest/drollest/rantingon-iest comments in such fashion

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