FERGUS FINLAY: We are the first democracy ever to decide the poor must pay our debts

IT may not really have sunk in yet.

Or perhaps we want to go on denying what we’ve done.

Last week our parliament voted through a budget and a social welfare bill that fundamentally and forever changed the character of our society.

We deliberately and consciously decided to attack the poorer people among us. We voted to take money from people who have little or nothing. It was a moment when we knew no shame.

The people we decided to attack are people who depend on us. And I’m not just talking about people who have only a social welfare income to fall back on. Throughout Ireland there are thousands of people – most of them, incidentally, women – who depend on the meagre wages they get as cleaners and ward assistants in our hospitals, as home helps in the community, as special needs assistants in our classrooms.

Many of them are the sole breadwinners for their families. They get up early, pack kids off to school and go out to earn enough to keep the wolf from the door. Sure, some do it to add a second source of income to the household, to bring a bit of comfort home. But there are literally thousands for whom a low-paying job is the only income they know.

And now, if they work in our schools or our hospitals, or if they provide almost literally life-saving services to elderly people in their homes, they are being told they have to take a pay cut of 5%.

The pittance that most of these women earn is tiny and there is gross unfairness in the decision to cut it. The only crime these women ever committed – the only thing they did wrong to deserve a pay cut – is to work in the public service.

But of course nobody ever thinks of them when we’re debating “the public service”.

The public service is some mythical monster, greedily fattening itself while our whole future goes down the drain. It abuses its sick leave, it gorges itself on huge pensions, it eats up all our resources and keeps coming back for more.

We don’t want to face the fact that there are thousands of people who work in the service of the public for very low wages indeed.

We might feel guilty about cutting their wages because we’d never want to cut the few bob the cleaner gets in our own office, would we?

But even if we can comfort ourselves by lumping all public servants together, and by telling ourselves they all have fantastic working conditions, how do we face what we’ve done to other groups of people this past week?

How do you qualify for a carer’s allowance, for example? Well, first you have to live with someone who needs constant care and attention. Let’s say you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s – a terrible disease that slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) kills the soul of someone you have loved and who loved you. It’s that love that makes you give up work and abandon income to try to make them as comfortable as possible for as long as you can.

In the process of providing that care, and for as long as you’re capable of doing it, you are going to save the Irish taxpayer thousands and thousands of euro.

In return, and if you want a carer’s allowance, we will put you through a means test. So that’s two hurdles to overcome: if you dedicate yourself to caring for someone that we don’t want to care for, and if you have no income to call your own, we’ll give you the princely sum of €220 a week – and 50 cent for yourself.

Until, that is, our parliament voted through the social welfare bill. In passing that piece of legislation the Dáil voted to take €8.50 from every carer in Ireland. The message was simple. We need it, you know. The country is broke.

Never mind the fact that you’ve been saving us thousands and thousands by providing love and care for someone we’d have to look after if you didn’t. We just can’t afford any longer to give you the miserable pittance we used to give you. We’re going to have to take some of it back.

I’ve written here often about people with disabilities. Every time I do, it offends some government minister or other. They accuse me constantly of ignoring the massive strides that have been made, the disability strategy, the legislation (don’t get me started on the legislation), the wonderful changes that have been made over the years. Dignity, that’s what it’s about. Independence. Pride. Those are the things we’ve stood for where people with disabilities are concerned.

I never want to hear that humbug again. €204.30 a week. That’s what the disability allowance is. It’s what some ministers would spend on a good lunch (depending on who’s footing the bill, of course). But the message for people with a disability is clear.

If you can’t work because of a permanent disability, we’re prepared to support your independence and your dignity to the tune of €204.30 a week – that’s €10,827.90 a year. Sorry, that was last year. This year we’re cutting your weekly allowance and we’re not giving you an extra week at Christmas. Why should you get an extra week at Christmas anyway? Remember your Charles Dickens – Tiny Tim never got an extra week at Christmas and he was so disabled he was close to death. So by the time we’ve taken €8.30 a week off you, and the Christmas bonus, we’ll have reduced our support for your dignity to €10,192 a year.

You might have a permanent disability. You might live in constant pain because of it. You may never have seen colours or shapes or the face of your child because of blindness.

YOU may know nothing of Mozart, or even the X Factor, because of deafness. You may struggle to communicate because of an intellectual disability. But we need that €635.90 more than you do.

And by the way, we’re taking back the home adaptation grants on which youdepend. And the dental services. And if you need medication, we’re introducing charges for the first time.

The point about this is that it has never happened before in the history of any parliamentary democracy in the western world.

Margaret Thatcher never did it, Ronald Reagan never did it. In the depths of the American Depression, President Roosevelt did the opposite – he created the New Deal to help people who were poorer, to support them with welfare and to help them back to work.

This is the first time ever that a country has decided that the poor must pay our debts. In all the years of the Celtic Tiger, the gap between rich and poor in Ireland never narrowed.

That’s because when the going was good, all the tax breaks were given to people who had plenty. Dozens of tax breaks, year after year. But now we’re in deep trouble and our best response, uniquely in the world, is to target people who have nothing. Being Irish will never feel the same again.

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