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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 25 October, 2014

Column: Pitting one section of the Irish people against another weakens us all

Budget 2014 hit the most vulnerable elements of society – not the young, the sick, the old, or pregnant alone. We need to show intergenerational solidarity and stand together against this injustice, writes Peter Kavanagh.

Peter Kavanagh

ON 11.28 am, Monday 21 October, two minutes after notice of The Irish Senior Citizens’ Parliament’s protest – organised for the following day – appeared on Broadsheet.ie, the first comment read “Feic ‘em, they’ve been protected enough”.

The debate ensued, some defending older people as the only cohort willing to protest in great numbers, others damning them as bubble-wrapped during previous budgets and due a spell on the chopping block.

A day later, thousands of protesters flooded Molesworth Street and Kildare Street, braving the showery weather to hear the words of members of the Irish Senior Citizens’ Parliament (ISCP) badly affected by measures in Budget 2014. RTÉ and TV3’s cameras were there, interviewing older people about how badly they were affected. The shots on news bulletins captured a righteous indignation among the speakers and the protesters, but they certainly didn’t capture the full story.

The comment wars resumed that evening. Older people were looking out for themselves. What about the other sections of society that were hit by the cruellest cuts in years?

Supporting one another

The truth of the matter is that the crowds assembled were not all pensioners out for themselves. Families, children as young as a few months old, trade unions, political groups, young professionals on their lunch breaks, and even the Union of Students in Ireland turned out in great number to support them.

This support was returned. Speakers called on the Government to reverse the heinous decisions that are going to force thousands more of their children and grandchildren to emigrate; they appealed for ministers to justify why pregnant women were asked to shoulder more pain under austerity; the Department of Social Protection was slammed for sending young jobseekers details of vacancies in Canada; Robin Webster of Age Action called for intergenerational solidarity in the face of an attack on the most marginalised elements of society.

Divided we fall

While intergenerational solidarity is real, and was clearly evident to anyone on Molesworth Street on Tuesday afternoon, the post-Budget coverage in media outlets would have led anyone to believe it was each section of society for itself.

The ESRI, writing in the Irish Times, compared the reduction to a pensioner’s effective income with that of the young unemployed or of young parents. This creates an underlying assumption that these key payments are the same. It’s an invalid comparison because it ignores the purpose of the State Pension, which is to provide an adequate standard of living from retirement until death.

Of course older people think it’s unfair that the dole for their grandchildren, who can’t find work, is down to €100. Of course they want their children to remain in Ireland, earning a living wage. Of course older people want their grandchildren to access third-level education without getting into astronomical debt and with the real prospect of a job on the other end.

Comparing social transfers, however, just weakens the bonds between generations and belies the real concern that exists among the young and the old. Yes, the State Pension itself hasn’t been cut since the recession began, but does that mean that it should be?

The cost of living has increased for everyone

Despite the core central payment of the State Pension remaining at €180-€230 per week, depending on contributions, since 2008, it’s a common misperception that older people have escaped the worst of austerity. The cost of living has increased for everyone, and is keenly felt by the poorest older people.

Energy costs are up to 34 per cent higher than they were in 2008 and for people who spend the most time at home – the poorest, the sickest and the oldest – there are few options but to spend money on heating. Eamon Gilmore has told older people that there has been no cut to the Winter Fuel Allowance, which still stands at €10 per week. This, of course, ignores the six-week reduction from last year.

Politicians can do many things, including apparent bi-location and magically turning green belts into shopping centres, but shortening winter is beyond them.

The most vulnerable elements of society were hit

The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice and MABS estimate that an urban pensioner who lives alone on the full State Pension, even with no mortgage, has just €23 to spare each week in case of unforeseen expense. The case is even worse for rural-dwellers, who fall €54 short of the minimum adequate income each week in the same circumstances. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the wealthiest pensioners receive 80 per cent of their income from schemes they paid into for decades and are taxed on now. Poverty is poverty and wealth is wealth. Age is irrelevant.

Budget 2014 wasn’t ageist. It didn’t unfairly single out the young, or the sick, or the old, or pregnant women. It hit all of the most vulnerable elements of society and every comment, article, report or offhand remark that pits one section of the Irish people against another weakens us all.

Peter Kavanagh works in Communications and Advocacy with Active Retirement Ireland, the country’s largest older people’s network, and as a Social Protection expert with AGE-Platform Europe, a pan-European older people’s body.

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