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.

Up until then, there had been the usual cabaret that passes for politics here. There was predictable grumbling from Labour backbenchers about the latest round of health cuts and a number of Fine Gael TDs were also starting to speak out. The issue was being seen in the context of Government survival and politics as a national spectator sport, but the human dimension was missing.

That was where Margaret Kennedy, who can barely walk due to multiple illnesses, came into the picture. She was with her identical twin sister Ann, who was too unwell to make it on the second day. They were accompanied by Michelle Gaynor, who told our reporter Aoife Carr she would be “a prisoner” without her personal assistants, as well as by doughty campaigners such as Leigh Gath (a thalidomide survivor without arms or legs), Martin Naughton and others.

One can only imagine the stress and strain of it all: the pain, the tiredness, the anxiety, the uncertainty. In a few years’ time we commemorate the leaders of the 1916 Rising who, despite the death and destruction they unleashed, are still widely admired for their courage and self-sacrifice.

But in the meantime we should honour the non-violent protesters who went from wheelchair users to Big Wheels when they fetched up at Government Buildings instead of the GPO. As well as Pearse, Connolly, Clarke and Plunkett, let us take a moment to honour the Kennedys, Gaynor, Gath, Naughton and their friends.

None of this is to underplay the severity of the crisis facing our society. Minister for Health James Reilly is at the sharp end of the efforts to set our economy to rights: his task is an unenviable one and no one doubts his sincerity and commitment.

We are all familiar with the expression, “the gift that keeps on giving”, but in PR terms the last week for the Minister has been a case of “the car that keeps on crashing”. It is mystifying that a formidable and relentless opposition spokesman could prove such a poor communicator in government. The sight of the hapless Dr Reilly at odds with his Taoiseach on whether the personal assistant cuts had been reversed or were never really intended was straight out of Monty Python.

It is difficult to convey the depth of frustration on the Labour side over the issue. The smaller party is at a loss to understand why such an obviously contentious target was chosen for a cutback and how it took so long for the problem to be tackled.

There was clearly some frustration with the Minister in Fine Gael ranks as well but also a feeling that Labour were hamming it up a bit and Fine Gael sources said there was close tic-tacking between Reilly’s Department of Health and Brendan Howlin’s Department of Public Expenditure and Reform before last week’s announcement.

Leigh Gath said at one stage that the protest would continue “for as long as it takes for us as citizens to be given back our independence”. John O’Leary and the 1916 Proclamation couldn’t have said it better.

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