Citizens forced to prostrate themselves for basic rights

The Devereauxes’ case highlights the desperate measures citizens must seek out in order to affirm their rights, writes Michael Clifford.

The reuniting of Michael and Kathleen Devereaux tells plenty about this country. More than anything, it tells how citizens are now being forced to have their basic rights asserted by prostrating themselves before the nation.

The Co Wexford couple have been married for 63 years. Michael is now 89, Kathleen three years younger.

Last April, the couple’s needs were assessed under the Fair Deal scheme, which provides for nursing home care. Michael’s needs were deemed to qualify for the deal, Kathleen’s didn’t.

The longevity of their marital status was obviously not considered. Neither was the projected short-term health and welfare effects of separation, on either or both of them.

There was no room for compassion, but neither was there any consideration for common sense or projected care needs for each individually.

Michael was sent to a nursing home, where he appears to have struggled greatly without the love of his life. He was allocated a room with two beds in anticipation of his wife joining him. Kathleen’s health deteriorated in May and she required frequent hospitalisation thereafter.

The decision was appealed but to no avail. In the days before the HSE, when health was governed regionally by health boards, the appeal may have been successful.

It would most likely have involved a meeting between the parties with a health worker where the actual circumstances could be observed.

In the national health service, created in 2004, that is not possible. Appeals are largely a paper-based exercise. The room for appropriate discretion is squeezed out.

None of which is an argument for a return to regional health boards. The nation’s health suffered greatly due to the overweening influence of local authority politicians under the old system.

Creating a national body was the correct approach for a grown-up country, except things didn’t turn out as planned.

One of the features of the HSE is that it is obsessed with self-preservation. This permeates the whole organisation, as seen by countless examples down through the years of its existence.

So when a routine decision is required in the case like the Devereauxs’, the main thing is to ensure that all boxes are ticked, all rules observed so nothing can come back to haunt the decision maker. In such a milieu, is it little wonder the couple’s appeal got short shrift?

The other feature of the HSE — in line with much of the public sector — is that it is conditioned to respond to public representatives in a manner that it does not to members of the public. The rights of the individual quite often are only affirmed through the intervention of his or her local politician.

As a result of this, the politician’s job is quite often reduced to a form of social work, rather than legislating for systems that function in the best interests of the citizenry. For some reason, the intervention of a politician didn’t work in this case.

Brendan Howlin, the local TD in Co Wexford, has said that he had been making representations on the matter since last April.

Then, on Monday of last week, the couple’s son Tom related the story to Joe Duffy on RTÉ’s Liveline. Thereafter his father came on the line from the nursing home. What followed was a testimony that would melt a heart of stone.

“I can’t sleep at night,” he told Mr Duffy. “I’m waking at four o’clock every morning and what do I do? I pray first of all, and then I cry…the fact is we just love each other…it’s a nightmare for me. And it’s a nightmare, I’m sure, for my lovely wife.”

Mr Devereaux could be heard crying on the line.

The levers of state responded at the speed of light. The HSE was onto Liveline before the programme went off air. Word came through from the office of the Health Minister Simon Harris.

It was as if somebody said, “We have 24 hours before Duffy is back on air, 24 hours to cover our asses. Let’s move.” So it went. By the following day it was all sorted. Leo Varadkar told the Dáil he was getting it sorted, that Michael and Kathleen would be quickly reunited.

“It was a decision devoid of common sense and devoid of humanity,” he said.

Mr Harris personally phoned Tom Devereaux to apologise and reassure.

The body politic, and the public at large, issued self-congratulation on the compassion of the Irish character in response to an inexplicable decision by faceless bureaucrats.

The story reflected the power of Liveline. If the Devereauxs had featured on the pages of the Irish Examiner, or a report on the Six One News, there would have been some movement to have it addressed, or at least something done until it died down.

However, Mr Devereaux’s personal testimony, the sound of the emotional pain of a man cast adrift from a mooring while on the home strait of life’s journey, demanded immediate attention. The political imperative was to kill the story before it took flight.

Is this what we’ve come to? In order to assert rights, or to receive compassion from the state, must an individual now prostate themselves before the nation, evoking their innermost fears? Is that what it now means to live in a so-called Republic?

There are undoubtedly other cases out there similar to that of the Devereauxs.

Some of these people, who have found their rights to be alienable, and the state to be devoid of appropriate discretion, must now be considering how they might get talking to Joe, because that appears to be the last refuge of the desperate. Not just that, but they must also wonder about how they should come across, how best to convey their plight before the nation.

What of the rights of those who are ill-equipped emotionally or temperamentally to articulate their desperation?

The reuniting of Michael and Kathleen Devereaux is a good news story. Joe Duffy and Liveline performed a public service in the best traditions of the media.

However, more than that, the story has highlighted the desperate measures the most vulnerable must now seek out in order to affirm their rights as citizens.


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