Mask slips on a Government wounded in battle over disability cuts

Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 01:00

Disability campaigners this week scored a swift victory against proposed cuts. Is this a significant setback for the Government?

ON TUESDAY night, a group of stylish Irish-Americans emerged from the Merrion Hotel in Dublin for an after-dinner stroll and started heading across towards the beautifully-lit Government Buildings.

Suddenly, one of them stopped and hastily put away her camera. Ranged around the imposing, locked gates, were people in wheelchairs, some of them clearly far from the pink of health, one holding a big, handwritten placard urging motorists to “Honk for equal rights”.

The motorists obliged, loudly and insistently. For the tourists, watching as duvets, pillows, food and reinforcements arrived, this represented a whole different side of the “homecoming”.

Tuesday night was not the first overnight protest staged by Irish men and women in wheelchairs. That happened back in June 1994 and shook up the politicians at a time when the notion of independent living was taking root but not yet understood as a right.

In his account of that week, Peter Young, who has cerebral palsy, described the public perception of people like him: “These were people who are supposed to have one desire: to go to Lourdes and be the subject of a miracle.”

Though a long way from the Lourdes grotto, the mood this week had a similar fervour and civility. “This was self-organised,” said Suzy Byrne, a disability advocate, service user and political blogger at MamanPoulet.com. “These people live very separate lives, they have able-bodied friends, they go to college. But they know enough that when there is trouble, they get together . . .”

Last Saturday, as anxiety heightened about the reach of the proposed cuts, members of the Leaders Alliance campaign group for people with disabilities met. They decided to target the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. The Center for Independent Living aimed their firepower at Wednesday. Press releases were drafted. The strategy was simple.

First, soften up your enemy with some sustained media bombing, then move in the tanks, aka the wheelchairs. The challenge of mobilising wheelchairs across city and country – many are too big for buses – must seem a lot like mobilising tanks. But the physical presence of the wheelchair users was crucial, and not just for visual purposes. “Up to this week, people hadn’t known about the political movement that was the philosophy behind independent living,” said Byrne.

Their fierce adherence to the slogan, “Nothing About Us Without Us”, meant that media interviews were focused squarely on the faces and words of the service users themselves, not on family members, personal assistants or organisations.

By Tuesday night, when Martin Naughton, Leigh Gath and Joe T Mooney finally rolled their tanks all the way into Leinster House, Minister for Health James Reilly and Tony O’Brien, acting chief executive of the HSE, were more than ready to talk. “Between Sunday and Tuesday they’d got a bruising it’s fair to say – they even looked bruised,” said one source. And much of the battering had been inflicted by troops from within Reilly’s own Coalition ranks.

On Sunday, campaigners were getting discreet messages from deep within the opposing camp to “keep up the pressure”. On Monday, word came that the cuts would not stand.

On Tuesday, the campaigners were pleasantly surprised by the very receptive demeanour of the Minister and O’Brien. “They didn’t come with a document, ready to read the riot act,” said a campaigner afterwards. “They were ready to listen and test our veracity. We pointed out that we had the power . . . We had the media and public on our side, we had expertise and specialists in our group. We asked them did they want to get this right? They said, yes, yes, they did. We said we were happy enough to work with them but would not engage in any kind of nonsense or pretend to the public that everything was rosy.” Pragmatists that they are, they recognised that a mutually trustful relationship with O’Brien could only be beneficial. Amid some “robust” exchanges, they said they could define certain areas where cuts could be implemented without damaging frontline services.

“In the end, we came out feeling that it was very worthwhile in terms of ongoing relations so there was a lot that was positive . . . We would have been very, very excited but for the worry that people down the line from us would be made to shoulder the cuts that we were saved from.”

But by then, the blame game was well under way. That meeting had begun with “almost a denial” about the origin of the press release announcing the proposals last Thursday week.

Of course, the HSE had put its name to it. Fine Gael TDs are still seething about the abrupt text message telling them to check their inboxes for an “important” notice from the HSE, due any minute. “A press release from the HSE, while the Dáil is in recess. With no mention of the Minister and no sign of him either. Who elected Tony O’Brien to make cuts,” asked an angry Fine Gael backbencher on Thursday.

“The role of the HSE is confusing in all this,” mused another prominent, senior Fine Gaeler. “The board has been stood down. So what is its function now? Is there some issue between the department and the HSE regarding roles of power and influence.”

Well, that’s the game in a nutshell, said a senior department source. “The illusion is that the HSE is a distinct, independent entity, but in fact, the department and the HSE are essentially one and the same thing.”

Since the Minister sacked the old HSE board last year, the new board has been filled with senior department staff and officials. It is also chaired by the department’s secretary general. “They’re basically talking to themselves. The last HSE board meeting actually took place in Hawkins House. Everything is dictated by the department . . . It’s been centrally involved in these measures. The Minister is driving it all.”

But another senior FG figure wondered, casually, if the cuts proposals had “really” been such a surprise to the Labour Party. Hadn’t Eamon Gilmore, Róisín Shortall and Kathleen Lynch – as well as James Reilly – attended meetings in July and August, chaired by Enda Kenny, where all this would have been discussed? The flaw with this is that it would place the Taoiseach at the scene of the “crime”, despite his efforts to dissociate himself by praising Reilly’s “courage” in reversing the cuts. However, other sources stated emphatically, that although the quantum of savings required was never in dispute, at no point during these meetings was there a discussion about cuts to frontline services.

Reilly’s re-emergence into the public domain after six days did little for troop morale. He denied on Prime Time that there had been a U-turn at all despite the Taoiseach’s praise for his reversal. One FG backbencher, hitherto a Reilly fan, said: “It was a case of ‘the dog ate my homework’, a performance straight from the Bart Simpson school of ‘it wasn’t my fault!’. Everyone else was to blame and apparently we all just imagined the cuts.” He now takes the view that James Reilly has had a “charmed” political existence.

“He was only elected in 2007 and came into Fine Gael as a superstar. He was put straight on to the front bench and into the job of deputy leader after the heave . . . I know there are people who think a businessman like Michael O’Leary is best equipped to run the country or that a doctor is the best person to have as Minister for Health – but what this shows is that you also need political skills. It’s not all about bombast . . .”

Other senior Coalition figures criticised the lack of progress so far in pushing through a new deal with the pharmaceutical companies and expressed disgust at the spectacle of hospital consultants being “handheld” through negotiations, “who – we’re being told for the first time – are covered under the Croke Park agreement . . . That matters because we all know the money has to come from somewhere but if these big-ticket issues were dealt with, you wouldn’t be seeing these threats to personal assistant and home carer hours.”

While commentators mused on the political implications of a rift between the Coalition partners, for the disability protesters that sense of incoherence and uncertainty at the highest Government levels were the drivers of real fear and insecurity.

How did they get it so wrong? “I suppose it shows the extent to which people are in a bubble, not clued in . . .” said a senior Coalition figure. Campaigners say it was ignorance, mostly.

“The Department of Health is paying for services for people about whom they know very little,” said one. “For example, a lot of politicians didn’t know what a PA [personal assistant] was. They kept referring to them as ‘carers’. They didn’t know that a home help can’t leave your home to take you somewhere; a PA can. The Irish nation knows nothing about us except in terms of the Paralymics and being ‘heroes’ and ‘superhuman’. And then there’s the charity model – very soon, you’ll have charitable organisations rattling buckets on the basis of what the public has seen in the last few days.”

What it means for other Government hurdles is another matter. “These are only the preliminary skirmishes in the budgetary process and already Labour are looking for an election,” said the senior Fine Gaeler.

“Will side-issues dominate the children’s referendum,” asked the FG backbencher. “Will the debate be all about respite care and the cut in hours? A referendum that isn’t about the economy gives people a chance to send a message on other matters . . . I’d certainly worry about that. I’d worry about what’s happened to the election promises about reform and that people would be thinking now that we’re as bad as Fianna Fáil – that the ‘mask has slipped’. I certainly think we’ve been damaged. By how much is hard to tell . . .”

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