Enniskillen Workhouse opened for the first time on a cold December morning in 1845 to accommodate those who found themselves in financial distress and poverty.

The workhouse has closed but poverty has not gone away as the doors of South West College, the former site of the workhouse, were opened to accommodate a discussion on poverty in Fermanagh in 2023.

‘Standing up to Poverty in Fermanagh’ was hosted by The Trussell Trust, the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network and The Impartial Reporter last Thursday, November 23.

A panel discussion formed part of the event hosted by Dr. Ciara Fitzpatrick, Ulster University and featured a range of speakers including Jenny Irvine, ARC Healthy Living Centre; Reverend Stephen McWhirter, Rector of Rossorry Parish Church; Caroline Rice, community activist and Paul Kellagher, Action for Children.

A variety of topics were covered including what poverty currently looks like on the ground, what the panellists have experienced, the stigma around poverty, how much of the current situation is down to and hopes for the future

Paul Kellagher opened his contribution by stating he doesn’t like the term, “cost of living crisis because it is always easy to blame the current circumstances and ‘far off events’ like war.”

He mentioned the “sheer” draining impact of poverty and how it affects children every day.

“We are storing up a timebomb of problems for children’s mental health.”

He later added: ‘We need to see children prioritised. We need to see the anti-poverty strategy put into action, We need a childcare strategy.”

Jenny Irvine, CEO of ARC Healthy Living Centre and a registered nurse spoke about how poverty can impact a person’s life span.

Mrs. Irvine said: “The length of your life is severely impacted by your social status and how long you live well.”

Recalling her own experiences when she first began her career: “25 years ago I wanted to fix everyone and didn’t actually understand that we were sending people home from the hospital to conditions [poverty] that made them sick.”

Caroline Rice was asked to describe hat poverty in Fermanagh looks like and how living standards have declined since the Covid-19 pandemic and the beginning of the cost-of-living crisis.

Ms. Rice said: “The biggest thing I see is public services. The more I look, there is no public transport services on our road, access to our health service, it’s weeks waiting for a GP appointment.”

Ms. Rice who works in education said: “I see day in and day out people struggling. I see it in the school canteen.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick pointed out that the free school meal allowance does not cover the full cost of a meal for secondary school pupils.

Rev. Stephen McWhirter described his gratitude that a service such as the Foodbank exists despite disbelief that a service has to exist.

“The bit that really disturbs me is I know that I have parishioners who are working, the working poor, and I don’t know about them.

“What I do know, is John [Shades, Enniskillen Foodbank] is helping them.

“I said to John and the volunteers, encourage them to speak to me. They are embarrassed about their Rector knowing they are in this trouble.

“What gives me real heart is while I don’t know, I am really grateful that John’s feeding them.”

Discussing stigma, Ms. Rice said that “language needs to change around poverty”.

On the same topic, Mrs. Irvine recalled an interaction between herself and a mother and teenage daughter who were using the foodbank service at the ARC.

“I was talking to her [the teenager] and asked what was wrong today, and her mother said, ‘I tell ye what Jenny, she’s embarrassed, but I told her, you’re better to be embarrassed than be hungry’.

“And I looked at her and thought, she’s 14, your parents are so embarrassing when you’re 14.”

“Another time, I was asked ‘how do you know people who come to foodbank really need it’ , and I was thinking, my problem is people who really need it who don’t come because of shame and stigma.

“We need to open the conversations. We need people not to feel that shame.”

Reflecting on stigma, Rev. McWhirter said that the discussion on poverty needs to change the way that the discussion on mental health has changed in the last decade.

He said: “Now it is acceptable and understood. We have to do that on poverty, we have to make it something people aren’t embarrassed about that they just need help for this particular time.”

There was a feeling amongst panellists that the failure of politics is one of the key reasons that there is currently a poverty crisis.

A small number of politicians were in the room as part of the event but none of those present spoke at any time during the panel or the later question and answer session.