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