No, minister we didn’t all ‘party’ in the boom

THE worst economic crisis in Ireland’s history follows what, for many citizens, was a near-decade of prosperity in which average incomes soared, unemployment rates were at all-time lows and property owners watched the value of their homes rocket.

For many, the property boom became more about lining their own pockets instead of making an affordable home a realistic ambition for a generation of young Irish people.

But far from everybody was on the receiving end of the wealth that was generated before the bubble exploded.

So when Finance Minister Brian Lenihan appeared on the nation’s television screens hours after unveiling the Government’s Four-Year National Recovery Plan, intended to get the country back up from its knees, many people who struggled to get the help and public services they expected for their families or those in their care were astounded at the minister’s declaration that everybody enjoyed the riches of the Celtic Tiger.

“I accept that there were failures in the political system. I accept that I have to take responsibility as a member of the governing party during that period for what happened,” he told RTÉ’s Prime Time programme.

And then the statement that caused tens of thousands jaws to drop in front of TV sets across the country: “But let’s be fair about it. We all partied.”

Ahead of Mr Lenihan’s hairshirt budget tomorrow, the Irish Examiner revisited some people whose struggles in search of better conditions we highlighted during the boom and whose stories were — and still are — about anything but partying.

These, and thousands of other people like them, face further disappointment in Budget 2011 as social welfare payments face cuts, services in health and education for those with special needs will be further restricted, and public spending on capital projects will be slashed over the next few years.

‘Some weeks I’m just waiting for my payment to buy food’

WHEN full-time carer Anne Hughes told us her story ahead of the budget in December 2006, she was worried about the lack of residential care for her autistic daughter Debbie.

She had been waiting four years to get her into part-time residential care at that stage and just a year ago the place finally came up, which means that Debbie spends six days and nights every second week in a centre not far from their home in Tullamore, Co Offaly. But even with that help, Anne is constantly on call as 31-year-old Debbie often gets upset in the residential centre so she has to talk to her on the phone or drive round there to comfort her.

“Up to this, I only ever had two nights of respite a month. But any services that Debbie has got, we fought hard for them,” said Anne.

She receives a carer’s allowance of €206 a week and more than half of Debbie’s €196 disability allowance pays for the residential care each week she is there.

“There are some weeks I’m just waiting for my payment to buy food. I certainly resent the minister’s comments. He and his colleagues may have partied with the money they’re on, but we certainly didn’t,” said Anne.

“They live in a luxury bubble, I want to see all their wages slashed. It’s crazy that the Taoiseach is getting paid more than the US president. Half the number of TDs should be taken out too,” she said.

She said it was hugely hurtful to hear the minister suggest that the whole country was partying during the boom.

“There’s horses in studs making millions for their owners but they weren’t paying a penny in taxes because the Government said the money would be taken out of the country. They [the politicians] are the cause of the situation but they don’t want to take any blame ” said Anne.

“I’m terrified about the budget, after they cut the Christmas bonus for our allowances last year. That extra week’s payment was the only spending money I used to have for Christmas presents and that was taken off us,” said Anne.

“Some of our politicians would spend on a new tie what I get paid in a week.”

‘The party Lenihan is talking about never got over Blennerville bridge’

THE application for a new primary school in Blennerville near Tralee has been with the Department of Education since 1996.

When the Irish Examiner highlighted the long wait and past political promises made to the Kerry school in June 2008 — as we also did in 2004 — principal Michael O’Connor was hopeful of progress for the project in the near future.

But more than two years later, the site behind St Brendan’s National School is still fenced off and empty, just as it was when the department bought it for the proposed new building in 2005.

Two years after that, just before the last general election, the school was told that a design team would be appointed shortly but Mr O’Connor, his staff and their 160 pupils are still waiting.

“We were told the money ran out, and yet the department failed to spend all its building budget the last two years running,” said Mr O’Connor.

It emerged last week that Tánaiste and Education Minister Mary Coughlan will have to spend €62 million she had this year for major primary school projects like St Brendan’s on other capital works, because of project delays and other factors.

“We had to get a grant of around €40,000 to replace our heating and electrics during the summer because they couldn’t cope with powering the prefabs as well as the classrooms,” he said.

Other maintenance works have included lining the inside walls of the 1932-built school which were crumbling from the damp.

Two of the six classes are in a prefab but the majority are taught in rooms just over half the size required in any new school. Pupils who need resource teaching sit with their teacher in a prefab room also used as the school office, store room and staff room, and another cabin is used for learning support teaching.

Like every other school in the country, St Brendan’s NS faces a cut of 5% in its budget for maintenance and classroom resources next year but like hundreds more too, it faces possible disappointment on the building front as the recently published national recovery plan revealed that spending on school projects will be cut by a third starting next year.

“The teachers here have worked their socks off in terrible conditions and that’s the only compensation for the pupils,” said Mr O’Connor.

“The party that Brian Lenihan is talking about never got over Blennerville bridge, we certainly haven’t been partying.

“We got the go-ahead for our new school in 2000 and we’ve been kicked around like a political football ever since.”

Life with autistic children is one long battle for services

CHRIS WALSH and his wife Paula haven’t had an overseas holiday together since they married 12 years ago.

With two autistic children and another son expected to get a similar diagnosis early next year, life is a constant battle for the family, who live in the Cork suburb of Grange.

This is how Chris described their situation just before the May 2007 election and things have not changed too much for them since.

At the time, son Christopher — who is now eight — was waiting to get a suitable school placement as the family’s home tuition grant was about to be stopped, and he had received only 10 hours of speech therapy in the previous six months.

“We were lucky to get him into Scoil Triest, run by the Brothers of Charity in Lota. He gets a half an hour of speech and language therapy a week, but he needs a lot of occupational therapy and he only gets it every couple of months,” said Chris.

“We were waiting about a year for another service to help with his behavioural issues, but since he finally started on it about a year ago, it has made a huge difference,” he said.

However, the family faced similar difficulties getting Christopher’s four-year-old sister Sarah properly assessed before she was diagnosed with autism.

Chris said the assessment was delayed beyond the six months it is supposed to take because the HSE did not have a qualified dietician, whose input was needed, and ended up paying for a private expert to assess her.

“We have three autistic children and the services are minimal.

“We get some home help from the HSE, which is great when it happens, but that’s just for a couple of hours a couple of times a year. For anyone to say we had it good in the boom time is a joke,” said Chris, who works as a baker.

“We’re married 12 years this year and we’ve never had a holiday together; we never go out together because of the lack of services. I would love to see a minister or politician come down to my house for one day and see how we live at home,” he said.

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