Forget civil rights, all you’ll get are photo opportunities and logos

SO, how’s the European Year of Disabilities going for you? I only ask because stuff seems to be happening in a lot of countries throughout Europe.

What's happening in Ireland is another protest rally. Tonight, to be exact. In the Mansion House in Dublin from 7 to 9 pm.

People with disabilities will gather from around Ireland to protest, again, at the stuff that's not happening here. This time, they will be joined by Amnesty International, who will protest at the continued incarceration, in our civilised country, of people with intellectual disabilities in totally unsuitable psychiatric hospitals.

Did you know that they are re-opening some of the big wards in St Ita's in Portrane, after years of trying to make the conditions at least a bit more humane and home-like? It's to save costs, believe it or not.

And the protestors all the nationally representative organisations, including many of the service providers will also be joined by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to highlight the continued failure to introduce legislation on the rights of people with disabilities, despite years of promises.

You'll remember, I hope, that the last time people with disabilities came together to protest was outside the launch of the European Year with Disabilities. A glittering event that was, where our Taoiseach came and went, promising that this would indeed be a year that people with disabilities would never forget, and leaving behind a half-million euro for 'events'.

It's too late to try to get your hands on any of this money. The applications are all in, and they've given out their grants.

The criteria didn't include permission to use the money to provide any new or different services for people with disabilities (as if!). But what else can you do? I thought I might find out by accessing the European Year's Irish website, www.eypd2003.ie. It's four months into the year now, so I was pretty sure there'd be something I could join or get involved with. But it wouldn't let me register kept insisting that I was only to use letters in my name (which, oddly enough, I do already). And under the various headings on the site it isn't exactly a mine of information.

If you click on the 'events' link for instance, you're told: 'Working groups are presently developing a calendar of events and receiving commitments from business, the public sector and the community and voluntary sector about how they intend to participate in the year. Others are working on the PR and communication aspects of the EYPD and how we monitor its success.'

And that's it not exactly reassuring for people who expected the organisers of the year to inject some urgency into the rights and needs of people with disabilities.

You could try to get advice on organising your own event. If you do, you'll be told: 'This section will contain resources and advice on organising an EYPD 2003 event. We will be adding content to this section shortly. Until then, visit www.eypd2003.org for information. You can also download the EYPD 2003 logo from the EYPD2003.org website.'

Wow download the logo from the European site! I can't wait.

Mind you, you won't get a grant for doing it. The money is already given out, as I said about fifty grants in all, the largest worth 30,000.

Given the barriers people with disabilities have to climb, a grant like that is going to solve nothing. When the person chosen by the Government to head up this European Year in Ireland, Angela Kerins, was speaking at the launch, she announced grandly that 'in March, excitement will grow with the announcement of the successful projects under the EYPD project grant application scheme'.

In fact the only thing that has grown is despair.

I notice that she and others, including the Taoiseach, have included the Special Olympics World Games as the flagship event of the year, as if they had thought of it as a vehicle for raising awareness. That's the sort of travesty that could really make you mad. Planning for the World Games started eight years ago (I know, I was there), and although the people who conceived it originally always intended that the Games would leave behind a legacy of greater awareness, leading to the breaking down of barriers, they also knew that would never happen without a national commitment to rights and resources.

The real tragedy is that national commitment is there, right throughout our community, but our Government spits on it day after day. That's why, in the so-called European Year of People with Disabilities, every service-providing organisation in Ireland is facing the sort of difficulties they haven't had to face since the 1980s. Not one extra penny was provided in Budget 2003 for services, and the consequence is that every queue that people with disabilities stand in is going to get longer.

But our Government will no doubt continue to turn up at events associated with the European Year there's a bus coming in the first week of July, for instance, as part of a trans-European 'march' for extra awareness, and you'll no doubt be able to see the photo-shoot in all your national dailies as one brass-necked Minister or another offers the bus a céad míle fáilte to Ireland. They ought to be hanging their heads in shame instead.

And all the more so since apparently they have now embarked on a new line of spin about what's wrong with the economy in the first place. Guess what it's all someone else's fault. I don't know if you watched the footage on television of our stern-jawed Taoiseach lecturing the bosses' conference in Killarney about the "comfortably indifferent" the professions, businesses and land-owners who continue to take profit from the economy, often at excessive levels, while people are losing their jobs as the economy slows down.

What? Where has this Government been? This has been going on for years, and Bertie Ahern has presided over two Governments that have effectively halved the rate of tax on transactions that have made the wealthiest of these individuals a lot wealthier. Now he's going to do something about them? Give me a break.

All he's doing is the age-old trick of offering people another target.

You can expect the ante to be upped on this one. Government Ministers, and especially the particularly oily collection of junior ministers we have right now, will all be putting out scripts over the next few months until the summer holidays, having a go at barristers or oil companies or pharmacists, promising to drive competition in the public interest, threatening to break up any cosy cartels they can find.

It's only happening because they're getting a hard time in the Dáil and in the opinion polls these last few months, and they'd like us to concentrate on others instead. It will all disappear without trace during the summer holidays.

My advice to you is that you should add to the hard time. Celebrate the European Year of People with Disabilities for real, by showing some solidarity for their demand for rights. Get along to the Mansion House tonight, and show the Government you care even if they don't.

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