The return of street politics


WHAT an astonishing act of engagement with the political system by the old and the young yesterday, the likes of which has not been seen for many, many years. Some 20,000 voters took to the streets, most of them over 70 years of age, accompanied by their supporters; the others students who have not been energised to protest in such numbers for an age also.

It must be shocking to the Government and its supporters that the Budget has engaged so many angry people. The issue of the over-70s medical card has not died down and the issue of eduction cuts, across all sectors, has yet to raise its own head of steam.

With a display of political nous, gritty advocacy and mobilisation by their representative groups, the grey generation has burrowed into the political system. Their protests over the medical card fiasco, which brought thousands on to the streets yesterday, have reminded politicians that it is foolhardy to ignore the insecurities, health and wellbeing of about 11 per cent of the population. These are the people who actually vote.

Their anger has brought them beyond complaining to their families, writing letters of protest or being supplicants of their TDs. They - and their representatives - have realised that seeking their share of resources requires more than producing pre-budget submissions, wearying meetings and professional media presentation, however valuable. It means utilising political muscle and confronting backbenchers who clap wildly after a budget targets vulnerable people. They are challenging claims that they are confused or do not understand the issues.

There is something good about what has emerged in recent days. There is a new engagement with the political system, a sense that politics and what happens in Dáil Éireann does matter and have an effect on people's real lives.

From yesterday, it would appear that the force which brought so many of the grey generation on to the streets has been festering for some time: the illegal charging of residents in public nursing homes, the ill-treatment at the Leas Cross home in Co Dublin and the failure to extend the breastcheck programme to older women.

Despite sophisticated equality legislation, free travel, improvements in some services, and the State pension, many over 65s feel they are an adjunct to, rather than an integral part of, the community to which they have contributed. In many areas they have to wrangle for basic facilities to allow them stay in their own homes, as most wish to do as they grow older. And in a broader sense, they are often ignored or made to feel they are a burden on society. There is an onus on grey organisations to effectively channel the current anger to positive effect.

The rudeness of protesters towards Government representatives over the last two days did their cause no good. While it is right that older people should campaign for their share, what they seek must be fair and their demands must be fully scrutinised in the context of the equitable distribution of finite resources.