Tuesday 11 December 2018

Conservative Ireland would rather grandparents remain unsung

The insiders' backlash against proposals to reward sacrifice in old age shows that the plans must have merit

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Collins
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Collins

Shane Ross

The mandarins were rumoured to be going bonkers. The gurus in the elite Department of Finance were believed to be tearing their hair out. The Independent Alliance, partners in government, had made a suggestion. A suggestion? Ministers making suggestions for the Budget? The cheek of them. Worse still, it was heresy.

According to the all-powerful mandarins' agenda, junior partners in government are not meant to be heretics. They are supposed to be slowly tamed by the system, worn down by two years in league with Fine Gael.

Last week, where was the ghost of the Labour Party, the passive, obedient coalition partners, when the mandarins needed them?

Briefings from predictable quarters dissed the new idea. The Transport Minister had gone off the reservation. The proposal was ridiculous. Imagine, these Independent Alliance mavericks were suggesting that grandparents should be saluted by society and compensated for their service to the nation.

They should receive recognition for minding Ireland's children while their parents returned to the workforce. Outrageous.

Bring in the men in white coats and tell them to lock up Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Boxer Moran. These ministers are making insanely radical suggestions about the Budget.

Is it the current gospel of the gurus that grandparents should be seen and not heard? Perhaps. Was it not a mandarin in the Department of Finance who recently suggested that free travel for senior citizens should be curtailed?

The mandarin was quickly put back in his box by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, but the genie was out of the bottle: senior citizens are an unrecognised asset.

Last week, an insiders' backlash was launched to ensure that they remained unsung, labouring in the shadows. Imagine the consequences for Ireland if we were forced to reward their free labour. The Exchequer would be emptied.

The establishment went to work. Anonymous Fine Gael sources were widely quoted as rubbishing the suggestion and its proposers. Official Ireland circled the wagons. Conservative Ireland took to the airwaves.

A threatened childcare industry joined forces with an incoherent Fianna Fail. Kill this one dead before it gets legs.

All of them sang from the same hymn sheet. The mantra was identical: where had this project ever been attempted before?

They are right. It hadn't. It is a proud experiment. A wise, but highly unconventional, old uncle of mine once told me that the definition of a conservative is a person who will never try an idea for the first time. The Independent Alliance wanted, for the first time, to test the possibility of making a payment to grandparents who looked after their grandchildren to enable their parents to rejoin the workforce. The grandparents, performing a public service, should be reimbursed expenses incurred up to €1,000.

The establishment blew a gasket.

The hole pickers emerged from their burrows. Fair, but often frivolous, questions were thrown at the "unworkable" scheme. They asked would all four grandparents of one grandchild qualify for payment?

Should uncles and aunts not be added? Would unvouched expenses not be abused by dishonest grandparents gaming the system? Should we not be throwing money at mothers instead? Would stay-at-home mums and dads not be recognised as well? Fair questions about detail, which happily do nothing to denigrate the merit of the big idea.

All the objectors refused to acknowledge the sacrifices made by grandparents. Some staggered with their ingratitude to the older generation.

Some shamelessly asked why the money should not be spent on themselves, whether they be creche owners, parents or professional and highly expensive childminders. The childminding industry was in full cry.

Many critics deliberately misrepresented the Independent Alliance suggestion. They misleadingly dubbed it a 'granny grant'. It is not a grant. It is a recognition of work done and expenses incurred by grandparents in minding their grandchildren.

Society owes a lot to grandparents. Many, though loving grandparents in their seventies or eighties, take their grandchildren for long hours, unwillingly. They are exhausted at the end of a week of childminding. They do the task out of a sense of duty. Several silently feel exploited.

The opponents raged on all week. An attempt was being made to manipulate public opinion before the idea took off. Despite the media interest and the avalanche of opposition from vested interests, the silent majority seemed to be swinging in favour of the proposal.

After an initial RTE Joe Duffy five-minute poll of only 3,000 people showed 80pc against, more positive results emerged.

The Independent online poll of far more people - 17,257 - recorded 14,550 in favour and only 2,387 against with 324 'don't knows', while a Journal poll last Friday came in with 5,998 in favour and 5,890 against, almost a dead heat, with the Yes vote shading it.

Fianna Fail spokesperson Lorraine Clifford-Lee tied herself and her party up in knots. God love Lorraine - she says the €1,000 a year is an "insult" to the grandparents.

It will be hardly an "appropriate recognition of the sacrifice and dedication involved in caring for children". So Lorraine is on our side. She even believes that they should be given more. Most of the opposition believes grandparents should get nothing.

They prefer to divert the argument back to the childcare debate. Their agenda is a massive increase of State cash into childcare. Fair enough, the Independent Alliance favours that, too, but we are already doing it. Yet we are still relying on the grandparents to step into the breach.

Where would so many working wives and husbands be without them? At home, looking after their children, unable to contribute to the growth of the nation and their own fulfilment.

New ideas always meet fierce opposition from conservative forces.

The opposition of the hard-nosed mandarins means that there must be more than a little merit in toasting Ireland's grandparents.

Shane Ross is the Transport, Tourism and Sport Minister and an Independent Alliance TD for Dublin Rathdown

Sunday Independent

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