Sunday 18 March 2018

Means testing trouble ahead

THERE IS going to be trouble ahead for the Government if Labour's Education Minister Ruairí Quinn presses ahead with proposals to include agricultural land in a revised means test for third level student grants. As things stand the grants means test is based on the income of a student's parents. But Minister Quinn, who says he want to broaden the means test to find a fairer way of targeting scarce resources at those who need them most, is thinking of including a family's assets in the calculation.

There are no definite proposals yet, but signals coming from the minister's office suggest farmland could be reckoned as an asset for the purposes of a new means test. This would most likely result in many students from farm families losing their third-level grants and, not surprisingly, farm organisations have been quick and sharp in their condemnation of such a move.

Less expected is the revolt among Fine Gael backbenchers who have outdone even the IFA and ICMSA in denouncing the Quinn plan. The FG backbenchers would be rather more in touch with rural Ireland than the urban Labour party cohort, who are inclined towards the view that heavily grant aided farmers are milking the system. Needless to say, they are also shuddering at the prospect of a furious backlash from farmers at the polls.

The current standoff sets the stage for further division between the coalition partners in what will doubtless become a very heated issue.

We can expect to hear much talk of the 'urban-rural divide' when the debate gathers momentum after the Dáil resumes. And that, indeed, does lie at the root of the matter.

Minister Quinn's proposal fails to recognise that, for most farmers, their profession is more a way of life than a viable economic activity. Many farmers work long and hard to earn far less than the minimum wage and any money they can afford – and often far more – is ploughed back into investment in their farms. That their land could be worth a fortune is irrelevant because, to the farmers themselves, it is nothing more than the basic tool of their trade.

It'll be an interesting debate with, in all likelihood, a big lesson on the way for Labour on the dangers of picking a fight with the nation's farmers.

THAT often-abused phrase about 'punching above our weight' had some meaning for once when Ireland's boxers showed true fighting spirit at the London Olympics, winning gold, silver and bronze medals and raising the spirit of the nation at the same time.

The golden girl among the team of champions was, of course, Katie Taylor, and tears of joy fell like a soft summer rain when she battled all the way to a historic victory in the women's lightweight boxing final.

RTÉ pulled a gem of a recording from the archives with a very young Katie promising to 'go all the way to the very top'. It was played over and over again on the radio and somehow stood as a symbol for how the nation's dreams could be achieved with enough dedication, commitment and sheer hard work.

'Is féidir linn' never before sounded so real and even if there was disappointment at the homecoming shambles, the pride of the nation has been lifted and we've all benefited from a much-needed morale boost.