Government wins crunch vote

The Government tonight comfortably won a vote on one of the most divisive issues it faced in recent times - just hours after up to 15,000 pensioners marched on the Dáil.

The Coalition was forced into a U-turn on last week's controversial cost-cutting Budget decision to remove automatic healthcare from people aged over 70 years.

After an angry and spirited debate in the Dáil, the Government tonight won a vote by 81 to 74 on a motion tabled by Fine Gael.

Under revised proposals, pensioners with an income above €36,500 a year and couples with earnings of €73,000 will not now be entitled to medical cards.

Former Fianna Fáil TD Joe Behan, who quit his party over the issue, tonight voted with the Opposition, as did Independent Finian McGrath, who also withdrew his support from the Coalition.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who broke his right leg in an accident, hobbled into the Dáil chamber on crutches to cast his vote.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said that in his 30 years in politics he had never seen a bigger public reaction to a single Government decision.

"It was the greatest incompetence of any Government for the past 40 years," he told the Dáil.

He said the "Judas" actions of the Coalition towards the elderly would be the epitaph of the administration.

He added: "Fianna Fáil, the Greens and the PDs have inflicted a scar on the body politic of Irish politics that has not been seen for 50 years."

Several Government ministers and TD said they regretted the decision and apologised for the anxiety and upset it caused to pensioners.

Health Minister Mary Harney and some junior ministers sat in the Government benches to face the anger from the Opposition.

Minister of State John Moloney claimed that Opposition TDs helped create confusion around the issue among older people.

But Fine Gael's Clare TD Joe Carey said: "People were crying on the phones to me. It was a lunatic of a decision. Where will they stop next; will they take the TV licence, the free travel?"

Mayo TD Michael Ring said: "WB Yeats said this was no country for old men. Well, it is no country for old women either."

He added: "It's time to get Fianna Fáil out of Government. They've codded us for 50 years. It's time to get them out."

Labour TD Liz McManus said she saw a man with an oxygen tank protesting outside the House.

Clare TD Pat Breen compared the pensioners' protest outside Leinster House with the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution.

"It was a case of 'if you can't convince them - confuse them'."

Labour TD Roisín Shortall recalled former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern during the debate: "He understood human nature and that trait has not been inherited by this administration."

Fine Gael whip Paul Kehoe told the Dáil: "It was shameless to force people over 70 to get up at 3am, people with disabilities, people that had strokes and heart attacks. They came from north, south, east and west."

He added: "Medical cards are the comfort society must give to people who are sick and dying. The Budget decision was unacceptable in a modern democracy."

Galway West TD Paul Connaughton said: "How can 14 people around the Cabinet table be so out of touch with the four million people living in the country.

"A medical card is the passport to a health service they would never be able to afford."

Opposition health spokesman James Reilly said he was standing up for his father's generation who paid 60% tax and educated themselves because there was no free education.

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