OUTGOING Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has accused the Government of "hiding behind the troika" to slash services and supports for some of Ireland's most vulnerable people.
The former journalist turned state watchdog took a parting shot at the Government as she leaves her €191,306 post this week to take on the role of Europe's first female European Ombudsman.
While her term in office has been peppered with various clashes with Government on a range of issues, she said she had noticed a distinctive pattern of "rationalisation by stealth".
"I worry at this very subtle cutting and carving of schemes," she said.
Noting Ireland was still "a very rich country as compared to many others, even in Europe", she said political decisions were being made by Government that were having a negative impact on individuals.
"I know the Government does tend to hide behind the troika and say they are forcing us to do this. Yes, the troika is forcing Ireland to hugely cut back on its public spending, but the choices are political choices," she said.
Speaking at a seminar on human rights organised by the Equality and Rights Alliance in Dublin yesterday, Ms O'Reilly said she had witnessed a dramatic shift during her decade-long stint as ombudsman.
She noticed change in how Government and local authorities have adjudicated in individual cases concerning housing, benefits and other social issues before and after the Celtic Tiger era.
"It struck me that during the first five years up until the crash of 2008, I never really had any difficulty in getting recommendations accepted – and particularly in cases where there was a discretion involved and somebody had a judgment call as to whether someone was entitled to a particular benefit or service," she said.
"In virtually all cases that discretion would be used in favour of the complainant. But then I noticed that this discretion was beginning to be applied in a very restrictive way once the recession took hold and the HSE and local authorities and all public bodies were told that they had fewer resources to work with."
She said Government was not coming out and admitting that a scheme had been changed, but "that discretionary piece has been junked and this has now emerged as a major issue for my office".
The most "glaring example" of this was the controversial decision by the Government in February to scrap the €10m- per-annum mobility allowance and motorised transport grants for the infirm and disabled.
This came after Ms O'Reilly discovered that the scheme was operating illegally contrary to the Equal Status Act because it excluded applicants over the age of 66. But instead of extending the benefit to comply with equality legislation as she recommended, the Government decided to scrap it entirely. This affected about 5,000 people with disabilities, but those already in the scheme continue to receive payments in the short term.