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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 12 July, 2020

'People with disabilities and the homeless aren't being taken care of because of your vote'

We know, deep down, that if it’s a choice between a 1.5% cut to USC or a 2% cut, most people will vote for the latter no matter what the additional cash could do for people in wheelchairs camped outside government buildings, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

DEMOCRACY, WROTE CHURCHILL, is the worst form of government; except for all the other ones we’ve tried. The polity is capricious, but I often feel that politicians alone get too fair a share of the blame for it.

Our democratic system is an extremely reactive one, often too much so. The will of voters is very directly translated into policy thanks to the parish pump style of politics we have cultivated through the years and maintain today.

No matter the party in power we know that government as a permanent institution is, as is obvious from the state of the place since 2008, deeply incompetent. For all of its incompetence, it is not unable to alleviate or solve problems. Government has the option unavailable to other bodies of throwing walls of cash at problems until it can make a positive change.

Even if someone else might have done it more efficiently or effectively for all that was spent, government has the ability to move the needle on issues it focuses on. So we have a functioning education system, a general health system that has decent care when you actually get into it, main roads that are in good condition and the like.

Why does government focus on and deliver in these areas? Because people base their voting intentions on them. The current government is getting a lot of flak for Irish Water from certain segments of society, but really it will live or die on how many elderly people are left on trolleys in A&E departments around the country.

It is issues like overcrowding in hospitals and kids stuffed into damp prefabs and income tax bills that move the vast majority of the electorate.

Disability services, homelessness, drug use

It is instructive then to look at issues that get national attention, but never seem to actually get fixed. Disability services and services for people with mental health issues is one. Homelessness is another. Drug abuse also springs to mind.

These are topics that people talk about, but do not base their vote on in large numbers.

Talk, as they say, is cheap.

Brass tacks, there is a certain viable minimum standard of care for the vulnerable that we are willing to settle for as a society. Homelessness reached the national conscience when a tragedy brought home the inhumanity of leaving people to die in doorways. There was a short term flurry of action and the homeless got some improvement in their lot. Just enough to keep more tragedies away.

We still talk about homelessness, but really the minimum standard has been reached and it’s probably a non-issue compared to USC or A&E in swaying a vast number of votes.

We abhor drug abuse, but really the minimum standard we’re willing to accept is keeping it at bay and largely out of sight. Certain communities suffer it endemically, but they don’t vote and as long as they stay in well recognised no-go areas, the rest of us will live with it.

When, in times past, it seemed to be ripping its way through the streets with no end in sight we put substantial resources into stemming the tide. Now there are a large number of people suffering, being given treatments that will never really solve their problem but keeping them from our gaze most of the time.

Ballot box 

The viable minimum standard has been reached, and no party will win an additional ten seats on the basis of their drug action policy.

Activists for disability rights, particularly around self-determination in care, won themselves tremendous applause for their sit-out at government buildings to highlight their plight.

Services for people with long term disabilities, and mental health issues as a related field requiring long term and residential care, aren’t just bad: In a letter to the HSE, the CEO of HIQA has “specifically highlighted what I believe to be significant human rights abuses” highlighted by her inspectors.

Inspection after inspection of residential and long term care facilities for both the disabled and people with mental health challenges have turned up appalling conditions. There are institutions in existence today, this very moment as you read this article, where vulnerable people are strapped into chairs and left to stare at a wall all day long.

They are left there, treated with what HIQA calls “antiquated standards of care” or, in better facilities, with what the service users identify as inappropriate care.

Camped outside government buildings 

We are all shocked when a program like RTÉ’s Prime Time show us the inside of these facilities. I think we all sympathise with the folks who camped outside government buildings for three nights this week. But to turn around and point at government alone and scream “heartless bastards!” at them is to miss an essential point.

This government, the previous government, all governments have been failing these people for many, many decades.

Why? Because we sympathise, but we don’t vote with our consciences. We vote en masse on self-interest alone. Sometimes that’s looking after our kids or our sick loved ones. Sometimes it’s purely about tax and the money in our pockets. These things are important, but so too we cannot simply shed crocodile tears and feel anguished when we see wrongs in the nation that could be put right if only someone did something about them.

We cannot simply demand that government do all the things we want them to do for us, and then solve all these other problems. We know, deep down, that there is only so much to go round; and if it’s a choice between a 1.5% cut to USC or a 2% cut, most people will vote for the latter no matter what the additional cash could do for people in wheelchairs camped outside government buildings.

Every week we see, and will continue to see, a procession of sectional interests looking for a better deal. Most of the time, we will sympathise with them. But as a nation, we won’t really vote based on the parties looking to solve their problems. There isn’t ten seats to be won or lost on the human rights of disabled people. Until there is, save the weekly crocodile tears.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here.

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