State like Scrooge to Jamie Sinnott


One of the meanest acts of this Government in the days leading up to Christmas has been the decision to appeal against the judgment in the High Court awarding £255,000 in damages to Jamie Sinnott. The 23-year-old autistic man's mother Kathryn was included in the award.

Mr Justice Barr's ruling that Jamie Sinnott's constitutional right to an education had been breached by the State and that this right is rooted in need rather than age received a lot of approving attention back in October. There was a widespread feeling that, in this case at least, the State would be compelled to do the right thing.

There was also admiration for Kathryn Sinnott, mixed with shame that she had to fight this long, often apparently hopeless, battle on her own. Her eldest daughter, Brigid, has described the endless meetings, knocking on doors, writing letters, waiting for phone calls from Government Departments which never came. "We, all of us, sad as it sounds, stopped believing long before Mammy did. She was still believing that something was going to come along."

Mr Justice Barr's decision was praised by our political leaders. In the Dail, John Bruton said that at last we had learned not "to go on fighting cases that are eminently just", sometimes, as in that of Brigid McCole, to the victim's deathbed. Bertie Ahern concurred. It was, he said, one of many sad cases. But "now the case is over and the judgment made. We are doing things differently now."

Two months later the Department of Education lodged an appeal to the Supreme Court. According to a report published last weekend in this newspaper, one of the grounds for this appeal is that the judge ignored the cost to the State of his judgment and the additional tax revenue needed to meet it. According to the Irish Society of Autism there are 1,200 autistic children in this State, many of whose parents might - appalling vista - get ideas from Mr Justice Barr's decision.

Even more threatening to the good health of the economy, apparently, is the shocking possibility that there could be other adults, who fell through the education net as children, and might now be tempted to claim it as their constitutional right to go back to the full-time learning of which they were deprived.

I am conscious that, in these cold days leading up to Christmas, a great many people and organisations are trying to focus attention on those of our fellow citizens who dread the annual celebrations surrounding Christ's birth, all too often because they do not have the money to join in. Father Sean Healy, among others, has tried to make us see how morally shocking it is that Charlie McCreevy's Budget will further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But what particularly struck me about Kathryn Sinnott's campaign for her son was the contrast between her long battle and the speed with which the State swung into action to try to take away some of what she won in open court. One of the reasons given for doing this, in an economy awash with money, is that it might cost us, the taxpayers, too much to foot the bill. Does Bertie Ahern believe there would be angry protests that might threaten the PPF if we had to meet these costs?

It was a coincidence (but surely a timely one) that a few days after the news of this appeal was lodged, a friend gave me an early Christmas present of a book of short stories edited by Nick Hornby, entitled Speaking with the Angel. Hornby's son, Danny, is autistic and in the preface to the book he describes, in a way that would bring tears to your eyes, what it is like for the parents of such a child - exhausted, depressed and panicking because his nightly screaming will, inevitably, wake the neighbours. He also tells us of the near miraculous change that took place when Danny was able to go to a school where he got the qualified attention that he needed. It has been, quite simply, "a remarkable, unexpected constant joy to those who witness it".

Hornby knows that his son is very lucky and that, as a phenomenally popular writer, he is in a position to ensure that Danny's luck continues. He describes how he was inspired, by watching Bono on TV talking about world debt, to realise that he could do something for parents and children less fortunate than himself. Speaking with the Angel is the result. It contains 12 stories by writers such as Robert Harris, Roddy Doyle, Zadie Smith, Irvine Welsh and others. They are funny, sexy, heart-warming and political.

Speaking with the Angel costs £7.99 sterling. For every copy sold £1 will go to what sounds like a marvellous school for autistic children in London. The Treehouse Trust started with four pupils, now has 20 and is determined to expand to help "tens of thousands of autistic children and their parents".

Do yourself and a friend a favour and buy this book. Robert Harris's account of the British prime minister explaining, to the House of Commons, how he gave the slip to his minders by wriggling through the lavatory window of a motorway petrol station, and ended up riding around London in a stolen car with a teenage girl could be the best laugh you'll get over the festive season.