Sunday 23 November 2014

Sure, not to worry, it's just a bit of a row

Last week, we saw that the political pantomime is always here with us. Oh, yes it is.

Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday

You will not be at all surprised to hear that there was a bit of a row in the Dail last week. Sure, isn't that what the Dail is for, says you. Not just real rows, but bits of rows.

We love our moments of political theatre. The players strut and fret and tell each other to get up the yard - sure, it's great crack.

These bits of rows are - in more ways than one - like the annual Christmas pantomime. In panto, there's a limited range of stories (Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and his Beanstalk, etc), but an infinite number of productions can be mounted around them.

Likewise with health, education, social welfare, banking, housing - the Dail stages familiar mini-dramas wherein alleged political enemies shadow box. This results in a bit of a row. As in a panto, the dialogue can be transplanted from one issue to another, from one bit of a row to another, from one player to another. It's not what they say that matters, but that they're seen to throw punches, to persuade us there are differences between them.

"Oh, yes there are!"

"Oh, no there aren't!"

A real row may have political consequences, but a bit of a row is purely for entertainment purposes. Last week's bit of a row was about one of this Government's cruellest, most thoughtlessly damaging cuts. It had an old-style villain, and a brand new hero - well, in the sense that new minister Alan Kelly is aware of the anger the cut generated, so he's . . .

Well, it's hard to know what exactly the new minister is up to.

The Government's latest careless, damaging cut saves a piddling amount of money, while disrupting countless lives. The Government saw a fine web of community services that support people with disabilities and - like a thoughtless child - tore that web with one bold stroke. Let's just list some of the conditions and disabilities affected by the cut.

Brain injury, arthritis, Alzheimer's, chronic pain, dyslexia, Huntington's, autism, motor neuron disease, deafness, heart disease, migraine, polio, muscular dystrophy, asthma, spina bifida . . .

And on and on. Two dozen groups.

But these are hard times; the Government never knows when it might need to bung a few more billion into the banks (tier-one capital needs protecting from stress testing, don'tcha know).

All of those groups, providing vital links between services and the people who need them - do you know how much those pitiless bastards would save by withdrawing funding from all two dozen of them?

A grand total of €1,285,000. Less than €1.3m.

Most of that €1.3m goes on salaries, supplies and services - a large proportion, therefore, comes back to the State in taxes. The net saving is minuscule. But our politicians love being able to tell their bosses in Frankfurt about gross "savings", without telling them the net figure. And without mentioning the human cost.

The groups under threat don't directly treat conditions and illnesses. They are vital links between the sufferers, the carers, the services and the State.

Defunding them lets the politicians say: "See, we're not cutting those at the coalface".

Take an example chosen at random, Chronic Pain Ireland. Something goes wrong, you're living with constant pain. You - and/or your GP - try to find out what support is available. Good luck with that, as you enter the jungle of automated phone services.

Happily, there's a body that can instantly advise on a range of options, that listens to people living with chronic pain and transmits their views and needs to professionals and to the State.

Simple job, vital link, no big deal, cost €45,000 per annum. Get rid of it, get rid of them all - and you save a tiny amount of money and inflict a lot of misery.

It's like keeping the fire brigade but saving a few cent by taking away their telephones.

Now, what bright gobshite signed off on that idea? The Minister for the Environment, Mr Phil Hogan.

Do you mean the Phil Hogan who has just received, from his friend Enda Kenny, the gift of an EU commissionership - a job with an immense salary, whopping expenses and a delightful pension?

Yeah, that Phil Hogan. Our revenge on Europe.

The bit of a row that the Dail staged last week involved Micheal Martin saying this cut was an "appalling act", and, "there's no justification for this."

Enda Kenny did what he usually does. He listed all the good things the Government does in providing services. Then he said there's an appeals process.

The Fianna Fail leader said forget the appeals process and sort this out.

Now, you've been around long enough to know what Enda Kenny did next. He did what he always does.

"Oh, no he didn't!"

"Oh, yes he did!"

He began listing the cuts Fianna Fail made. Cuts for people with disabilities, mobility allowance, carer's allowance. And Fianna Fail, he said, "removed the Christmas bonus".

Boo, hiss.

You remember the Christmas bonus that Fianna Fail abolished in 2009, right? And how Enda Kenny restored it as soon as he became Taoiseach?

"Oh, no, he didn't!"

You're right, he didn't.

Here we are, five years later, and the injustice of that appalling cut makes Mr Kenny burn with such indignation that he still raises it in the Dail. But, seeing as how he's been Taoiseach for over three years, clearly he's not upset enough to actually do anything about it.

Because he'd have to find the money elsewhere, and that might involve hitting people who can actually hit back. So, it's better to avoid a real row. Just have a meaningless bit of a row.

And then Micheal Martin told the Dail of how, "carers, disabled, blind people and widows", would be hit. He spoke of money saved in cuts "which is eventually going to go into bonuses for bankers".

Oh, wait a minute - Micheal Martin didn't say that.

That was Enda Kenny, when he was on the other side of another bit of a row, about Fianna Fail cuts. Sure, it's all the one, isn't it? Enda, Mee-hall, swapping panto dialogue. It must confuse them, sometimes, and leave them unsure if they're for or against something.

But - wait - there's a new player onstage! Alan Kelly, the new Minister for the Environment. Alan is looking after us while Phil goes off to Europe, to caress all that lovely money.

There was a surge of anger when the cuts were discovered - people saying just how damaging this will be to so many lives. Alan was about to get slammed for something done under Phil. So, Thursday evening, the word went around - Alan is going to make a statement! Twitter fluttered with excitement.

And, sure enough, Alan strode on stage, just as the wolf was about to devour Little Red Riding Hood, and with one swipe of his woodsman's axe . . .

Well, this is where it gets confusing. Alan announced a "review" of the funding. Meanwhile, the two dozen groups are to have funding restored for a year.

But how can Alan have a review? During that bit of a row in the Dail, the Taoiseach claimed the cuts followed "an independent assessment". This reviewed the spending and decided who got hit. So, there's already been a review.

Now, there's to be a review of the review. And, under Enda's appeals process, perhaps we can have a review of the review of the review.

Or we could just stop trying to find excuses to hurt people. When you take something that people need, something that works, and break it for no good reason - that's vandalism.

If Enda needs money, let him take it from the debt dodgers and profiteers who have increased their fortunes while the rest of us paid for the greed of bankers and bondholders.

Traditionally, a review is a way of putting something on the back burner, while you find a sneakier way of getting what you want. It usually involves divide and conquer. The disability groups will need solidarity if they're not to be picked off one by one.

Meanwhile, here's how Alan could make a name for himself. Put down a motion that says that unless the Dail comes up with €1,285,000 in a way that doesn't hurt citizens, all 166 TDs' wages will be cut by €7,740, 
thereby making up the difference. Or, of course, they could all just stage another bit of a row.

Sunday Independent

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