THE INTERNET ERUPTED in a torrent of vitriol and righteous indignation last night as Gaeilgeoirí throughout the country realised that An Taoiseach’s nominee for the office of Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs, Joe McHugh, doesn’t speak Irish. As the minister who will be most in contact with Irish-language organisations and Gaeltacht residents, it’s usually been understood by successive administrations that the Minister should be able to communicate with Irish speakers in either of the official languages of the State. Joe McHugh’s appointment has been seen as a sign of disrespect by thousands.
Older people felt the same way when the current administration appointed Kathleen Lynch as junior minister in 2011. Deputy Lynch was given responsibility for Disability, Equality Mental Health, whereas her predecessors Áine Brady and Máire Hoctor had been given the task of representing older people. Advocacy groups were dismayed and campaigned for a minister for older people. Fine Gael and Labour moved quickly to add older people’s issues to Lynch’s portfolio, underlining their commitment to make Ireland “the best small country in the world in which to grow old”.
Grinding to a standstill
Minister Lynch and the Department of Health oversaw some positive moves for older people in Ireland. They had responsibility for organising the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations in 2012, which was followed in 2013 by the publication of the National Positive Ageing Strategy, Ireland’s framework for creating an age-friendly country for all her citizens.
Then things began to grind inexorably toward a standstill. The National Positive Ageing Strategy, while far-reaching and ambitious, still doesn’t have an implementation plan a staggering 16 months on; the Government’s commitment to making Ireland a better place for older people has been undermined by cuts to the Household Benefits Package and the weakening of the spending power of a State Pension, which is still sitting at 2008 levels despite increases in the cost of fuel, food, motor tax, health insurance and medicine.
Most keenly felt among the blows to older people was the removal of the telephone allowance, a payment that helped thousands of older people to have personal security alarms linked to their landlines. In 2014, uptake of these alarms, which are provided by community groups through a government grant, is down. Many older people cannot afford to keep a landline without the €10 per month they received in previous years.
Change in title
This de-prioritisation of older people’s issues has been seemingly rubber-stamped in the recent reshuffle by the removal of older people’s issues from Minister Lynch’s title. The Minister’s office released a statement last night saying that, despite the change in title to Minister of State at the Department of Health with Special Responsibility for Primary Care, Mental Health and Disability, she would still oversee older people’s issues in Ireland. The implication to many older people’s organisations was clear – it just wouldn’t be as important as before. Ageing is now a “primary care” or “social care” issue, rather than something that will hopefully affect all of us.
Ireland recently placed 12th in the world in HelpAge International’s Global Age Watch study. This little island ranked as the 12th best place in the world for older people. This was not down to government prioritising financial support for older people (we were 24th), health (14th) or employment and education opportunities for people over 50 (a disappointing 32nd). Ireland did so well because of our “enabling societies and environment”. We were ranked 3rd in informal, non-governmental community supports for older people. We essentially became a good place for older people in spite of our Government’s actions, not because of them.
Disenfranchised Irish speakers have at least one option for recourse, an Coimisinéir Teanga/The Language Commissioner, established after the Official Languages Act, 2004. Likewise, children’s issues can be dealt with by the Children’s Ombudsman. Older people have no such office to appeal to.
The sooner this Government, and those who support it, realise that ageing is something that affects all of us, the sooner we can truly become a country for all ages.
Peter Kavanagh is a Social Gerontologist and Political Commentator who works in Communications and Advocacy with Active Retirement Ireland, the country’s largest community-based organisation for older people.