Fergus Finlay: You will have to be your own man to be the children's minister

When I heard Roderic O’Gorman was the new children’s minister, I thought, ‘Who is he?’, writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: You will have to be your own man to be the children's minister
Roderic O'Gorman, the new children's minister, arriving for a Cabinet meeting at Dublin Castle. Mr O'Gorman is a first-term TD.

Dear Minister O’Gorman,

First of all, I want to wish you the very best. You have the job I always wanted, and it’s important to me and many others that you really succeed in it.

When I heard that the Department of Children had survived, I was delighted. When I discovered it was going to be combined with disabilities in a brand new Cabinet-level department, I thought, maybe now there’s a chance to make real change.

But when I heard Roderic O’Gorman was the new minister, my immediate reaction was “who the hell is he?”. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I’ve been knocking around politics a long time and I’ve never heard of you.

According to Google, you have far more educational qualifications than I‘ll ever have, but you were only elected to the Dáil in February on your fourth attempt.

Since then, most of the news coverage I’ve seen about you has concerned the disgusting campaign against you being run by some of the most repellent political cave-dwellers in the country. 

Nobody in their right minds believes the tripe these rodents come out with — so you might be the only one affected, because I know too well how these types can leave the marks of their claws on you.

So forget that nonsense if you can. Let’s talk about your ministry and your mission. Because I really want you to succeed I’m going to be blunt.

You need to stop and think. You’re a highly qualified academic and lawyer, so you have well-developed analytical skills. 

Now, apply them to the statement issued on your behalf a day or two after your appointment — you know, the one where you “set out your department’s priorities”.

I don’t have the space to quote it here, but really? 177 words of twaddle about extending equality and reaching out. If that’s what passes for your real priorities, we’re all sunk before you start.

People can read it for themselves — if they can find it, that is. 

You’re a minister three weeks now, and your department hasn’t managed to update its name on the government website. And don’t tell me they’re waiting for some formal decision — Simon Harris’s brand new department is there, with its proper name at least.

No, they’re waiting to see what you’re made of, how serious you are, what kind of minister you want to be. 

Above all, how focused you’re going to be on making real change. Your first statement as a minister suggested to me — I hope I’m wrong — that you’re a first-term TD out of your depth.

I hope I’m wrong because the shape of the battles you need to fight right now are already pretty clear. 

A couple of days after you were appointed the Government went on to appoint a junior minister for “special education and inclusion” reporting to an entirely different minister, and then — unbelievably — a junior minister for disability in an entirely different department to yours.

That means only one thing. It means the Department of Education and the Department of Health are in no hurry to get rid of their large disability budgets. Their two new junior ministers are being carefully house-trained and institutionalised as we speak to see you off the pitch when you go looking for resources.

Here’s why that matters. Your brief is in two parts, roughly speaking. Children and Disability.

You’ll get around €1.5bn for the children side of the brief. That might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. Around half of that money is spent on protecting children from abuse and neglect, and it isn’t nearly enough.

The other half is spent on what should be preschool and early childhood education, but is still very much childcare and child minding. Massive structural change and more resources are needed if the system is ever really to serve the needs of children, as opposed to all the economic needs it tries to meet now.

But the disability money is far more. It’s not all in one place (and that’s a huge part of the problem) but if you ask your civil servants to get hold of the figures and tot them up, they won’t be far short of €8bn. They might even be closer to €9bn.

Added together, the budget for children and disabilities, if it was all in one government department, would make that department the third or fourth biggest one we have. And it would give the head of the department a lot of clout.

That’s because the disability funding is an enormous amount of money. It’s probably not quite enough, but even if it were, it’s spread all over the place, and touches almost every single government department — the Department of Justice even has a little slice.

The key owners of that huge fund are the Department of Education, the HSE (I have to declare an interest there), the Department of Social Protection, and a host of non-governmental agencies, many of them very powerful.

The purpose of the money is (a) to support people with disabilities in their daily lives, and (b) to provide essential services for them. There are obvious services, like special education and residential care, and things that mightn’t occur to everyone, like accessibility to public transport and supports for employment.

Partly because it’s spread so far and wide, but mostly because of bad politics over many years, the €8bn-€9bn is badly allocated, poorly shared, and utterly mismanaged. 

It would take me a week to spell out all the ways, but fixing that issue would put a huge amount of resources in the hands of a Minister who wanted to change things for the better.

But the system will fight you every inch of the way. There are so many entrenched vested interests that unravelling it all will require incredible focus and determination. 

The two junior ministers I’ve mentioned, and others, will be tasked with ensuring you never get your hands on their money.

And that’s just the resources issue. Wait till you get to legislation and policy. We have a huge pile of phoney legislation in this entire area. It’s designed to create a cosmetic impression that people with a disability might have rights in Ireland. 

In reality, the system regards people with a disability, and their families, as dependent second-class citizens.

You can’t fix all of that without finally giving people with a disability some real rights in law. You know, the sort of rights to equality we have enshrined in law for women and for transgender citizens. 

The sort of rights to have their interests regarded as a priority we have enshrined in the constitution for our children.

That’s why you need to stop and think. What really do you want to do with this job? There is one last great campaign for human and civil rights in Ireland to be led and won. There’s a huge battle to be fought, and a huge prize at the end of it.

Because you’ve been appointed, I’m really hoping you’re the
person to lead it. But I need to be convinced

 

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