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Colm Keaveney: Hope has been driven out by cynicism in Ireland

“Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”… Well, different groups in our society have had to endure different levels of sacrifice, writes Colm Keaveney.

Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

MINISTER MICHAEL NOONAN opened the budget with a quote from Yeats: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” He neglected to quote the line that directly follows: “O when may it suffice?” The answer to this question is worth thinking on in the context of the Government’s budgetary strategy.

Different groups in our society have had to endure different levels of sacrifice to others. Some must now be wondering have their sacrifices not already sufficed to satisfy their own just contribution towards our recovery.

Last year’s budget was by any measure an anti-women budget with cuts to child benefit and taxation of maternity benefit being the main measures impacting on them. This year’s budget, almost as an afterthought, has now imposed an average cut of €32 per week on women on maternity leave.

Of course, the Government might argue that they’ve compensated by this with the introduction of the GP medical card for under-fives.  This measure is the centre piece of the budget in many ways with both Government parties hoping to earn praise from bringing it in.

The devil lies in the detail

While I welcome this initiative as an important step on the road towards universal health care, my welcome is tempered by caution. As with many announcements by this Government the devil lies in the detail, particularly when it comes to the question of where the funding will come from.

Will the funding for these new under-fives GP cards come from money saved by withdrawing full discretionary medical cards from other children suffering from serious illness or disability? Brendan Howlin announced today that they are looking to cut €133m from spending on medical cards which leaves you with the suspicion that further withdrawal of these discretionary cards are on the Government’s agenda.

There is no doubt that the under-fives initiative will be politically popular and a Government flagging in the polls needs it, but that cannot excuse any cynical shuffling of the health budget for political ends.

Universal health care is a noble aim and one that I am in favour of. In times of limited resources any progress towards that must be done in a series of steps. The question is that no matter how welcome universal GP care for under-fives is desirable is it the appropriate first step. Directing that spending towards providing medical cards towards those with serious long-term illness seems like a better starting point, given the need to direct resources towards the greatest need rather than towards the greatest political needs.

Those with a serious of long-term illness have also been hit with a rise of €1 in their prescription charge. That may not sound like much but for those on limited incomes with multiple medications that can be a relatively significant amount of money. There are no exemptions to this charge, even for those who are homeless.

Targeting the elderly

As well as targeting those with long-term illnesses the Government have also targeted the elderly in our society. Cuts to the household package will mean that many of our older citizens on low incomes will be forced to lose their landlines. This matters as for many these landlines are linked to personal alarms and to house alarms. The resulting insecurity is surely not something that any of us would wish to have inflicted on our parents or grandparents.

The young have also been targeted too with reductions to Job Seekers’ payments for those under 26: this in the context of massive youth unemployment and emigration; both caused by poor economic performance.

Michael Noonan made a claim today to credit for three years of growth but this is entirely false. There has been no such growth and this year will barely see any. Even the Government had lowered their expectation from 1.7% for this year down to 0.2%. They are forecasting 2% for next year but given the state of our goods export figures, down 7.4% from 2012 according to figures released by the CSO, this seems highly optimistic.

Hope has been driven out by cynicism

In the absence of strong exports we need our domestic economy to perform but budgetary policy has targeted those on low and middle income, the very groups that spend a high proportion of their income, while leaving those on high incomes largely untouched. Once again, many of today’s measures will once again be regressive in their impact.

Yeats’s lines above refer to the heart being turned to stone. The heart in poetic terms is not only where love and compassion dwell but also hope. It is hope that this country needs but the old idea of politics as an activity aimed at improving our society has been lost. Hope has been driven out by cynicism, a cynicism that the political system itself has generated by its failure to address the needs and hopes of its citizens.

Colm Keaveney is a sitting TD for Galway East .

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