independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Martina Devlin: Begging letters fiasco highlights how all is sacrificed to pay huge wage bill

AT THIS time of national emergency, it's a consolation to remember the country is in the very best of hands.

That's why government employees are sending begging letters to the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP), suggesting the charity might rustle up taxis to take an elderly patient to hospital appointments or pay the cleaning bill at a sick woman's home.

In a twist that defies parody, social workers from the HSE are writing to a charity, suggesting public donations could be used as sticking plasters to cover the gaping wounds in the health service.

A service that's tottering, in part, because of a Cabinet decision to designate the Croke Park Agreement as bulletproof.

But don't worry, because the country is in the very best of hands.

Ireland can no longer afford to pay for the HSE. That's indisputable. But the wage bill – 70pc of health spending – is inviolable under Croke Park. Which pushes the non-pay element into the firing line: services are sacrificed to salaries.

That €130m in savings required from the department's budget is being accomplished by scaling down resources. And the impact is felt by the most vulnerable in society.

Those letters to the SVP say it all. Can the charity find €800 to take care of someone's rent arrears? Just make out the cheque to Dublin City Council. Surely that's an appeal which should have been directed to the local authority in the first place.

Cowardly decisions are being taken at the top level of government. Tearing up Croke Park would mean industrial unrest – better to toss overboard anyone without union representatives to fight their cause.

Many people in the public sector earn modest salaries and are just as likely to be struggling as those in the private sphere. They are not the problem. Although it is indefensible that public servants continue to get increments – pay rises by another name.

The problem can be found higher up, among a tier of cocooned senior staff with enormous entitlements due from the public purse. Over-indulged, overpaid and over-pensioned, the mandarin and political class fall into this category.

They are not alone. Let's consider health, since those begging letters are flooding out on HSE-headed notepaper. Hospital consultants continue to resist any inroads into their extravagant salaries. Dr Reilly is making no discernable progress in reductions here and, ominously, has taken to bleating about productivity rather than pay cuts. It's a sure sign he is losing the battle.

Still, rest assured the country is in the very best of hands.

"We cannot prop up state services," says the SVP's Patricia Carey.

The sense of injustice underpinning those words reverberates. If they fall on deaf ears there is no common humanity left at the upper echelons of Irish society. We'll know after the Budget on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, it is an indictment of the Coalition's priorities that a charity, reliant on public gifts and staffed by volunteers, is asked to do what ought to be the obligation of state services.

Granted, we are living under a bailout, but decisions on where to cut and where to spend – who to target and who to spare – remain within the Government's power.

Labour continues to protect Croke Park, whose members are among its core voters. But in so doing it betrays the essence of its founding principles.

As for Fine Gael, it appears content to preside over a woefully unbalanced society. No wonder it is scoring its lowest Red C approval ratings since 2008, according to yesterday's poll for the 'Sunday Business Post'. People are less pragmatic than politicians about the two-tier society that has emerged.

Those working for the SVP know all about it: poverty in the inner city, poverty in the once well-heeled suburbs, poverty in rural areas.

We are living in a place and at a time when children, the unemployed, those with special needs and people on the margins are allowed to go in need.

A tale of two Irelands is unfolding around us. It's possible to be fooled by the wealth that's still visible: by the expensively-dressed women at lunch, by the clubbable men on the golf course, by the cash buyers at sales of distressed assets.

But such is not the norm. They are the exempted sector, their privileges deemed immune by politicians elected to cherish all citizens of this Republic equally.

Enda is turning his face against a higher rate of tax for those on incomes above €100,000. Heaven forfend these people might have to forego any of their little luxuries.

Better by far to have unheated schools, to resist grant requests from students and to pare staffing levels to the bone in hospitals. Perhaps the great Irish public will dig deep to pick up the slack and increase their charity donations. Never mind that a mushrooming stratum of the great Irish public is in despair at how it can possibly cope.

Croke Park advocates insist the agreement has delivered savings. Clearly, any savings are inadequate, judging by those begging letters to the SVP from an organisation that should be delivering help to citizens in need.

All together now: at least the country is in the very best of hands.

www.martinadevlin.com

Irish Independent

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