Latest cuts for coalface charities cruel and unnecessary

Opinion: Small organisations doing vital work are being allowed to fall through the cracks

Given that Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin are still in place it would be naive to expect the new Cabinet to make big changes for the better.

However, we might at least expect it to stop doing stupid small things that make life more miserable for people already in deep trouble. Alan Kelly and Leo Varadkar can make a good start in their new jobs by getting to grips with a cruel and completely unnecessary crisis in funding for almost every small charity for people with disabilities. Last week, while the country was in paroxysms over a fat man in a Stetson hat, a bomb went off over the heads of 26 organisations that provide services and support for people who have other things on their mind – like getting through, not five nights but just the day; every day. Casually and carelessly, the Government essentially informed these organisations that it doesn't matter if they go out of existence.

We’re not talking here about the mega-charities with the inflated salaries but rather of the collective self-help groups that make life bearable for people who’ve been dealt a bad hand by genetics.

Modest grants Groups like Aspire, for people with Asperger's syndrome, the Irish Motor Neurone Association, the Centre for Independent Living, which helps people with disabilities with the assistance they need to live their own lives, MS Ireland, for people with multiple sclerosis, Chronic Pain Ireland and the Alzheimer's Society. Last week, these bodies and others learned that they are having all their core State funding withdrawn immediately.

For the last six years, these charities have received very modest but vital grants under what’s imaginatively called the Scheme to Support National Organisations (SSNO) which was established to provide core funding to “national organisations which provide coalface services to disadvantaged target groups”. It is a tiny programme: less than €7 million spread over 2½ years. Nobody is getting rich on this: the average grant is €43,000. But it matters enormously to all of these groups because it gives them money to employ a small staff. In some cases, we’re talking about one or two people – but these are the people who organise the voluntary efforts, the fundraising and the advocacy that gives these vulnerable minorities some chance of having a voice in the public policies that affect them.

I’ve come across a lot of the people who work in these groups over the years and I would say that they are, on the whole, among the most efficient, effective and entrepreneurial people in Ireland. They have to be: getting services for vulnerable people in our lovely State is a horrible, frustrating, bone-wearying business. A lot of these groups share offices and resources in places like the Carmichael Centre in Dublin so they can keep overheads low. A lot of the people who work with them are employed on part-time salaries but work more than full-time. Often, they have a strong personal connection to the problems they are trying to alleviate.

And last week, while the Taoiseach was worrying about Garth Brooks and the media was preoccupied with the Cabinet reshuffle, they were all told to go to hell. The new round of SSNO funding cut out almost the entire sector of small health and disability charities. They were turned down for funding en masse, with no explanation and no rationale.

To take one example, Huntington’s Disease is an utterly horrible genetic condition – a progressive degenerative illness with devastating physical, cognitive and psychiatric consequences. Families affected by it live with terrible fear for themselves and their children and because the condition is genetic the effects are generational. These people desperately need support and advocacy and in its generosity the State has been giving the Huntington’s Disease Association €22,500 a year under the scheme. And now even this pittance is being stopped.

Why? Since no explanation has been given to the groups themselves, we have to indulge in educated guesswork but what seems to be going on is that they are caught in the middle of an undeclared inter-departmental turf war. The SSNO is operated by the Department of the Environment, which in turn has outsourced the grants process to Pobal, the body that manages publicly funded community programmes. Pobal in turn seems to have decided that the SSNO money should be channelled into community and human rights organisations and not into health-related charities – presumably on the basis that the latter should be funded by the Department of Health.

No consultation This may be rational in itself – except that this decision seems to have been reached unilaterally and without telling the health charities that they’re now out of the loop. It’s not so much a matter of targeting these charities, more a case of simply allowing them to fall between the cracks. Who notices or cares that the effect is to heap more misery on those who already have unbearably more than their fair share? Look over there

– there’s a man in a Stetson whose heart is breaking.

If the young Turks coming into the relevant departments of environment and health want to send a signal that they’re different, they could start by stopping this stupidity now.