Policy challenges - We still have to make hard decisions

It may have taken six years to reach the point where our desire to have a decent, supportive, and caring society runs into the kind of life-defining, fundamental, brick-wall issues that can change a life or, in extreme cases, become a life-or-death issue, the kind of issues that define rather than just sustain a society.

Though there have been many skirmishes, and more than a few casualties over the last number of years, very few issues have cut to the bone like the growing housing crisis and the review of medical card entitlements.

The very idea of being homeless and cold on the side of the road surrounded by tired, frightened, and probably hungry children and not having a place to sleep in safety or comfort is so far removed from the experience of the great majority of Irish people that most of us may not have considered what being homeless actually means. Maybe the idea is so frightening, so disturbing that we turn away, quietly giving thanks that we are not in that awful, profoundly stressful position.

Maybe the idea of being the parent of a very sick child denied the moderate succour of a medical card falls into the same category. Which of us can grasp what it means to watch a beloved child suffer and maybe fade away because State medical or financial support has been withdrawn? What do you do when your personal resources have been exhausted? Do you pay the mortgage or the doctor? The issues involved, the trauma, the fear, and sense of failure are probably so very great that it quickly becomes an emotional issue rather than an accounting exercise.

But what to do? We still borrow something around €50m each and every working day to pay even today’s greatly reduced housekeeping bills so the public finances are still based on an unsustainable model. That infamous tin can, once such a prominent player in our public discourse, is kicked down the road yet again. That kind of dependency on constant borrowing also seems to tie our hands in the ongoing outrage caused by the crippling debts assumed by the State on behalf of those who invested in our crazed banks.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has promised to be as flexible as is possible on medical cards and to ensure that those suffering from a long-term illness will be supported. His Government has also promised to provide at least a partial resolution of the housing crisis before the end of the year. It is easy to support those intentions but maybe we should wait until they are delivered to celebrate them.

Maybe there are more fundamental questions we need to ask, Maybe we should ask ourselves if we can continue to spend such a great proportion of the public purse on non-essentials while families are being made destitute, while medical cards are being withdraw from those who depend on them? Have we really gathered all of the low-hanging fruit? How can we justify spending €30m on a new sports stadium, hundreds of millions a year to promote a language less than 3% of the population use every day, or — blasphemy of blasphemies — how can we fund the arts while families are evicted? Surely the sanctuary of a home and medical support for the ill and vulnerable are more important than these uplifting but essentially peripheral projects? That we have not had that conversation suggests we do not fully grasp how very far beyond our means we are living.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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