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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 18, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    Pulling up the drawbridge

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    The real tragedy with certain elements of the Budget is that they represent the restoration of  “means-test economics” and threaten to bring a halt to a decade or so of social advancement in this State. With the introduction of free fees, medical cards for everyone over 70 and other measures there was an unaccustomed whiff of egalitarianism about this self-styled Republic.

    There was a fair bit of controvery over free third-level fees prior to the implementation of the policy by then-Minister for Education Niamh Bhreathnach in 1996. I recall being at loggerheads on the issue at the time with a leading specialist in educational matters. This was a person who had come from a very modest background to a position of considerable prestige and influence.

    I was strongly in favour of the free-fees policy and none of the arguments put forward by my interlocutor could remove the suspicion that this person was pulling up the drawbridge and endeavouring to ensure that the rest of the lower orders were kept in their place. It was what leftists call “class politics” but from a right-wing perspective.

    There’s more than a hint of class politics about the medical cards controversy too. Those on social welfare will be looked after because the poor we will always have with us: noblesse oblige old boy. The professional classes will hardly notice the change. But the in-betweens who are above the income limit but still watching every penny — they’re done for.

    I see today’s Irish Times magazine  contains some very interesting articles about the 1980s. One of my strongest memories of that decade is the day when, presumably for the purposes of some feature article, a colleague was looking for a university student with a Dublin accent (not the DART variety). The only person anyone could think of was the legendary (even then) Joe Duffy.

    In recent years I have, from time to time and in different places, spoken with or overheard people with working-class Dublin accents as they discussed their course in college or how a son or daughter of theirs was going to college.

    If lifts my heart when I hear that and I say a silent prayer for Donogh O’Malley who brought in free secondary education in difficult economic times and Niamh Bhreathnach who got rid of the college fees — though she lost her seat in the Dail at the hands of a thankless middle-class electorate in Dun Laoghaire at the next election.

    There’s been a good deal of rhetoric in recent days about the upper layers in society exploiting the free medical card scheme. But as I’ve said, they’re not the real victims. This has been a fateful week in Irish politics. Sociologists might well argue that it reflects the embourgeoisement of Fianna Fáil and conclude that the party leadership has lost touch with its roots.

    Whoever was in power would have had to cope with the dire economic situation. There was always going to be pain and quite a but of squealing. But the sensible thing to do was to ensure the pain was not inflicted on a large body of people who actually vote and can turf you out of office.

    What happens when the first death of an elderly person is attributed to the change in the medical cards policy? “They took my mother’s card away and she couldn’t afford to go to the doctor.” Imagine the tabloid headlines and the public outrage.

    Coming back from a visit to Denmark some years ago, I enthused to a colleague about the great social welfare system out there. Taxes were very high but people got looked after so well, it was worth the price. What if we brought in the same system here? My colleague – not cynical but  very seasoned – shook his head: the extra funding would be wasted, fiddled or mismanaged, or a combination of all three.

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    • Keith says:

      >the extra funding would be wasted, fiddled or mismanaged, or a combination of all three.

      Unfortunately, Fianna Fáil have done a very good job over the last thirty years or so, and the last ten in particular, of convincing us that all politicians are equally corrupt, incompetent and self serving. And then that, on that basis, you should vote for FF because at least they won’t mess up the economy.

    • Tim says:

      Deaglan, thanks for this very good piece.

      Can you now, leading on from your comments above on education, please examine the rampant education cuts proposed in the budget?

      Especially the scrapping of the free books scheme for poor children and the impact of raising the pupil/teacher ratio, which was already worse than in 1972 and and will now cause classes to be even more overcrowded.

    • Ray D says:

      I agree with you as regards no means-testing for things like free travel etc. for over 70s and for general egalitarianism in socio-economic matters. However I note the disgraceful opportunism and cynicism of the Labour Party in relation to the medical cards holders. The move to restrict cards and means-testing is classical Labour Party policy and, indeed, practice in the past. Yet cynically Labour jumped on the bandwagon to oppose a measure that is in line with their philosophy. But even worse is that they jumped on the bandwagon after the furore erupted. In interviews on the budget on the day after, reported in the local freebie (Dundrum Gazette, 19 October), four Labour Dail members – Senators Ryan and White and TDs Burton and Tuffy – individually commented on matters such as the levy, transport initiatives, and the lack of employment-boosting measures in the Budget. But neither of the four mentioned the medical-card measure at all. It is clear that they had no problem with it then. We could do with even a sprinkle of integrity and honesty from our politicians.

    • Deaglán says:

      The whole concept of universality is being threatened at the moment. But as Maev-Ann Wren rightly argues in a Sunday newspaper (I am reminded of Bernard Levin’s phrase, “The Sunday Another Newspaper”), we don’t charge the rich for using the public road or attending national school. The point is not to protect the rich of course but to ensure the people in between are looked after and that class barriers are not created of entrenched. Surely the way to make the rich pay is to impose appropriate taxes on them, not this scattergun piecemeal approach.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Every means-tested state benefit creates a poverty trap for those in receipt. Only universal benefits avoid creating poverty traps. Those traps are very, very real – just look at how high they have had to raise the income threshold for over-70s to keep them in the gold card system. Now think how much more they’d have to raise the minimum wage to persuade a father with three kids to take a job which would result in him losing his family’s medical card entitlement. Now imagine how much higher it’d have to be if one of those kids was asthmatic – €100 per month to cover drug payments alone, not counting extra GP visits.

      The absolute fixation by BOTH main parties, the PDs the Labour Party and the Greens, (not to mention the Irish media) on the percentage rate of tax is the rock on which this society will break apart.

      In an equitable society, ALL state benefits should be universal and fully taxable. Give everyone a medical card and tax them for the privilege, as they do in Britain.

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