Protesters' disability becomes their greatest strength
INSIDE POLITICS:THE FENIAN leader John O’Leary said that one thing you should never do for your country was cry in public. If he were a ghostly presence outside the gates of Leinster House the other evening, he would have been dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.
It was the aftermath of a successful protest by disability campaigners. A man called Hubert McCormack, whose long hard struggle with disability has not prevented him from participation in the arts, sang We Shall Overcome into a squeaky microphone.
The disability activists, most of them in wheelchairs, had scored a major victory by sleeping rough outside Government Buildings and nailing down, for the time being anyway, the reversal of a Government cutback on the personal assistants who mean so much to their quality of life.
We Shall Overcome has great resonance for anyone acquainted with the civil rights struggles in the US and, later, Northern Ireland. The fervour and dreams of generations of activists are captured in such lines as, “Deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome, some day”. I wasn’t there for McCormack’s rendition, being tied up trying to make sense of pronouncements on the cuts by our elected representatives, but my guess is there wasn’t a dry eye about the place.
It has been a good week for democracy, with those who are among the weakest and most vulnerable in physical terms making the strongest and most weighty contribution to the betterment of our society.
Maybe it was the stellar performances of their brothers and sisters at the Paralympics in London that gave them the extra boost and inspiration they needed, but the disability campaigners in Dublin did a good day’s work.
Or should that be a good night’s work? Even in the mild weather of the past week’s Indian summer, the prospect of staying out all night was not to be taken lightly by an able- bodied person, never mind someone in a wheelchair. It wouldn’t have been so bad at the top of Grafton Street with buskers and late-night revellers for company, but Merrion Street is not an ideal location. Looming over the protesters were various Government departments and the nearest thing to music in those is the quiet rhythm of the rubber stamp.
Up to now, the disability movement has been a relatively low-profile feature of the political landscape. Tea and sympathy were on offer in abundance but campaigners weren’t taken as seriously as they deserved.
All that has changed, changed utterly. The wheelchair activists were like the TV news anchor played by Peter Finch in the film Network who called on viewers to open their windows and shout: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”
It is a self-evident truth of Irish politics that if you don’t kick up an almighty fuss the powers-that-be will walk on you without a qualm. Ironically, the physical weakness of the disability campaigners was also their greatest political strength.
Genuine victimhood and vulnerability can be powerful political cards if played right. The all-night protest may have been born out of desperation but it proved a masterstroke.