Fighting back to win the day - if only for a few months

Thu, Sep 6, 2012, 01:00

LEINSTER HOUSE has seen bigger protests, but rarely a more civilised one. No ear-splitting streams of rhetoric, no symbolic storming of the gates. It was all the more effective for that.

As more wheelchairs arrived and overwhelmed the pavement, the few visible gardaí didn’t argue; they just created more pedestrian space on the road, reducing Kildare Street traffic to a single lane. The only noise was the rhythmic blasts from passing cars, as drivers sounded their horns in a continuous chorus of solidarity.

That must have been scary enough for those lurking inside the corridors of power assessing the political damage.

In the end, there were about 70 obviously disabled protesters, obvious only because they were in wheelchairs. Closer scrutiny of

the crowd standing around them revealed crutches, white sticks, and a guide dog.

“God alone knows the effort it took to get themselves here,” murmured the mother of a young man in a wheelchair. He had

got “lost” for a while between Merrion Street and Kildare Street, she said, her eyes already glazing over from anxiety and exhaustion.

“To organise this number of wheelchair users is massive,”

said Alan Dunne, deputy chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland. “What you see here are the people who actually are using the services rather than their families . . .”

Dr Margaret Kennedy, who, in bold pink ensemble and cheery flowered hat, appeared in these pages yesterday in the company

of her sister, Ann, had a small card pinned to her top: “Twin too unwell to be here today.”

But Kennedy, who can barely walk due to multiple illnesses and has a personal assistant for three hours a week, had soldiered on alone, travelling by train from Greystones, then shoving and leaning on her old manually powered wheelchair from Pearse Station up to Merrion Street and around to Kildare Street, before gratefully sinking into it, “nearly dead”.

The general mood was less of anger, than of bafflement – at the poor economics of the proposals plus the byzantine communications system of the HSE. But, crucially, there was a quiet confidence that their cause would endure.

Tired, hot, uncomfortable, with some in serious pain, they were nonetheless prepared for anything the day would bring, including another cold night on the streets.

Michelle Gaynor, who lives alone with the aid of three personal assistants, felt she had no choice until she had written confirmation of a reversal of the cuts. “Without my assistants, I would end up in residential care. They are literally my arms and legs. They drive my car and cook my meals. Without them, I’m a prisoner. Without them I can do nothing . . .” she said.

It’s hardly surprising. Many have been fighting since childhood just for the right to be visible. Martin Naughton’s first battle as a teenager in St Mary’s hospital, Baldoyle, was to be allowed to have a haircut outside the institution. This is probably why, 40 years on, he and his comrades – John Roche, Leigh Gath and Donal Toolan – communicate with a quiet patience and unfailing politeness.

The politicians are dealing with skilful strategists here.

As campaigners, they may not physically rattle the gates but they have learned the hard way to grit their teeth and think long-term.

“We are not silly people,” said Naughton. Significantly, this protest was led by individuals in wheelchairs – activists rather than victims – rather than by any of the many organisations working in the field. Naughton led the day’s events without ever raising his voice, starting in the early morning outside Government Buildings on Merrion Street, waiting for the promised letter from the Department of Health confirming the reversal of the cuts; then, while that was being analysed, moving around to Kildare Street, always watched solicitously by his personal assistant of nine years.

He never forgot to thank the media in his addresses – not speeches, more a respectful series of updates – throughout the day.

This is probably why anyone wondering whether this is another pensioners’ riot in embryo should think again. It has the power to be more than that in its reach across every social sector.

There were no Coalition representatives visible on the pavement. The Dáil has not reconvened but Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, Richard Boyd Barrett, Joan Collins, Luke “Ming” Flanagan and Patrick Nulty were highly visible among the throng. Fianna Fáilers included Micheál Martin, Barry Cowen, Averil Power and Dara Calleary. Was this another pensioners’ moment?

Calleary considered it too early to call. He characterised the pensioners’ uprising as “an issue in itself, but also one that crystallised a lot of things that were going on at the time . . . Is this one of those moments?

For now, it’s an incompetence around the Department of Health. The uncertainty and the zero communication are really scaring people . . .”

At about 4.30pm, Martin Naughton wrapped it up: “We have shown that we are organised. We have shown that we are talented,” he said, sitting in front of a small cardboard sign pinned to the railings that read: “Cutting PA hours splits up families”.

When Hubert McCormack sang We Shall Overcome into a squeaky mic, the sense of exhaustion was palpable. But the cars went on honking . . . and the sound travelled all the way into the corridors of Leinster House.

By 6pm, when People Before Profit staged their protest outside Government Buildings, the main protest had long since packed up. About 25 women, organised by Cllr Brid Smith, took part in a noisy chant – “We say fight back/When they say cut back” – with Boyd Barrett and Finian McGrath taking the lead. But by then, there was no one to hear them.

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