‘We’re not costing the State ... we are saving it €4bn a year’

For many people €325 may not be a particularly significant sum.

For past taoisigh like Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, it represents how much they earn in just over 17 hours from their annual state pension of €164,526.

For the 166 TDs who will vote on this year’s budget, it equates to just over a day’s pay. And for some consultants who are routinely hired by the Government to advise on a range of issues, it’s probably less than what they bill for an hour of their valuable time.

For the nation’s 77,000 full-time carers, whose work is often of a 24/7 nature, it is the amount cut off their annual respite grant by the Government in one of the most controversial budget cuts.

The decision will see the one-off annual payment fall from €1,700 to €1,375. For the Government, the cut will achieve savings of €26m per year — a figure which incidentally approximates to the total sum paid in allowances to TDs and senators in a 12-month period.

Temperatures in Dublin yesterday were a chilly 5C but it felt even colder, not that such conditions deterred a group of carers anxious to demonstrate their outrage and sadness at the measure, even though the arctic weather seemed to have had a negative impact on the number of Christmas shoppers in Grafton St a short distance away.

The people attending yesterday’s protest, hastily arranged by the Carers’ Association of Ireland in the aftermath of Wednesday’s budget, were less numerous and vocal that those attending other similar recent demonstrations outside Leinster House on abortion.

Some of them literally don’t have a voice because of their disability but their relative silence and dignity were all the more eloquent and powerful.

Not surprisingly, the turnout was small (about 100) as carers, by their nature, are not readily available to break their routine of care for loved ones to travel away from home at short notice. The beneficiaries of such care are even less likely to brave freezing conditions and make a journey that could be detrimental to their health.

Yet it didn’t stop Niamh Barrett, a 60-year-old woman from Fairview, Dublin who has suffered severe paralysis and is confined to a wheelchair since suffering a stroke 10 years ago and her husband and full-time carer, Seán.

“The respite care allowance usually allowed us take an annual holiday together. The cutback will restrict our ability to take that holiday next year as well as paying for some essentials,” explained Seán who gave up work to care for his wife.

In all likelihood, the allowance will be used towards fixing a lift in their home which broke down recently with an estimated repair bill of €1,000 “The Government says it has to take tough decisions. I disagree. We were a fairly soft target,” said Seán.

Niamh stressed her disappointment at the role of the Labour Party which she claimed “had made a commitment to protect the most vulnerable”.

Another Dublin couple, Micheál Ó Nualláin and his wife, Miriam Murphy from Ballybrack travelled directly from an outpatients appointment at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin to attend the demonstration with their 3-year-old son, Uisneach, who suffers from a rare condition.

IP36 deletion syndrome, of which there are only about 12 cases in Ireland, means Uisneach has no speech or independent mobility.

“We both had to quit full-time jobs after Uisneach was diagnosed. Now each of us works on a part-time basis.

“We have half the income we once had but we still don’t qualify for a lot of other social welfare payments,” said Miriam.

Last year, the family used their €1,700 respite care grant to travel to a conference in Birmingham on IP36 deletion syndrome which they described as “invaluable” for learning about their son’s condition and proper care.

Miriam said the money saved by cutting the respite care grant could be achieved “10 times over” by increased taxation of high earners. “The disabled are being singled out for this treatment,” she observed.

Also at the centre of the protest was well-known campaigner, Carolyn Akintola — a 48-year-old full-time carer for her 75-year-old mother, Elsie, despite the fact that she herself must use a wheelchair.

Her unwaveringly upbeat demeanour in the face of both the actual and political climate was impressive, although there was little warmth in her words on the subject of the budget.

“I really hope the Government sees sense. We are a resource to be cherished. We are not costing the State. We are better than cost neutral as we save the Government about €4bn each year,” said Carolyn, who receives just three hours of home help per week with some additional support provided by the Carers’ Association.

She believes there is a relatively simple solution to help the Government find another €26m so that the full respite grant can be restored — reduce the travel allowance paid to politicians.

“What other person gets paid to travel to their place of work,” she said.

A further demonstration is planned for next week by which time the protesters will hope Fine Gael and Labour TDs will prove that they can be members of a caring profession too.

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