A U-turn that raises as many questions as it answers

IT was a quiet rebellion with a little-known TD at its centre.

Ray Butler was newly elected in February and boasts neither national profile nor long-time experience of the Dáil’s inner workings.

But personal family circumstances convinced him immediately on Monday, when the first half of the budget was announced, that the proposed cuts to disability allowance for young people were wrong.

“It really hit home because I’ve a sister with Down Syndrome myself.”

His sister, Aisling, is 40, and would not have been affected by the cuts. But Butler recalls the battles that his mother, who is currently ill in hospital, fought on Aisling’s behalf.

“My mother sent my sister to mainstream school, and Aisling naturally enough with Down Syndrome wouldn’t sit down, and she was put out of the school.”

There were no special needs assistants back then, he recalls, so his mother began lobbying the then government for resources to be put into special needs education. He thought of his mother’s battles, he says, after the cuts were announced.

He got numerous calls on Monday night and Tuesday morning. One was from a constituent and friend of his, Niall Winters, whose 15-year-old son Thomas has muscular dystrophy and who was set to be affected by the cuts.

The TD also got a call from his own brother. “He said: ‘We’d prefer if you put one or 2% on the income tax than do this’.”

As it turned out, Butler did not need years in the Dáil to know who to lobby. He just lobbied as many people as possible.

He was not the only Fine Gael TD who thought the cut was a mistake. A number of backbenchers — Jerry Buttimer, Simon Harris, David Stanton, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Joe McHugh, Damien English and Kieran O’Donnell — were also raising the issue. Word quickly spread in Fine Gael. As it did so, into Tuesday afternoon, Butler was lobbying someone else — the Taoiseach.

Enda Kenny asked Butler for Niall Winters’ number. At about 3.35pm on Tuesday, just a few minutes before Finance Minister Michael Noonan was due to deliver the second half of the budget, Kenny rang Winters to listen to his family’s concerns.

Meanwhile, the Government chief whip, Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe, had also heard of his colleagues’ concerns. He agreed that a meeting of party TDs should be called on Tuesday night. Mitchell O’Connor chaired it.

“We had around 40 to 50 TDs up there, and everybody [was] singing off the same hymn sheet,” says Butler.

It was agreed that a deputation including Butler would go to meet with Social Protection Minister Joan Burton to discuss the matter. It did not take long for the Government to signal the U-turn. Appearing that same night on RTÉ’s Prime Time, Mr Noonan said the cuts could be revisited. Kenny then confirmed the cuts would be put on hold pending a review. Government, he conceded, did not get things right all the time.

The episode raises as many questions as it answers. Fianna Fáil tried to implement similar cuts three years ago, only to quickly backtrack. How did the Government not learn from its predecessor’s mistake?

What does it say of relations between the coalition partners that Fine Gael TDs were allowed place so much pressure on a Labour minister?

Where were the Labour TDs in all of this (they were also active behind the scenes, one Labour member insists, but it seems undeniable that Fine Gael TDs were chiefly responsible for securing the change of heart).

And while the Government was right to own up to its mistake quickly to contain the damage, what does it say of the administration’s ability to last the course that it performed a U-turn during its first budget?

But Butler does not see it that way. He sees a Coalition which made a mistake and then worked together to rectify it, praising Kenny and Burton for the way in which both dealt with it. Butler did his lobbying in private and never intended to speak to the media about the matter. The only reason it became public knowledge was because Kenny name-checked him in the Dáil yesterday.

“I didn’t do it for any media,” says Butler. “Thomas [Winters] will never work. And if society cannot look after people like Thomas, to be honest with you, I don’t want to be part of that society.”

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