Time to call in the Civic Reserve

ImageToday, on the front page of the Irish Times, we are informed that the goal posts are being moved again as 40,000 medical cards are being cut and more drugs on the scheme being delisted, this is coupled already with the increase in prescription charges from 50 cent to 1 euro 50 cent per item. This re-writing and re-working of scheme guidelines is becoming common place as this FG/Lab Government becomes more adept at making stealth cuts & department savings below the radar.

Many will be aware of the mess made when student grants came under the control of SUSI at the start of this academic year. Halfway through the year there are still students waiting for grant approval and payment, with some third level institutes compelled to provide food boxes to hungry students. The Government took their PR advice, and who wouldn’t with the price they pay for it, and blamed the students for not sending in all the relevant documents with their initial application. Silly students, how did they ever complete their Leaving Cert if they can’t follow simple instructions on an application form.

However, students told a different story, with many keeping records of their correspondence and phone calls to SUSI including the names of the civil servants they spoke to on each of the occasions they contacted the body. Some students were asked for the same documentation on numerous occasions to be sent in, others were advised on the phone to SUSI to ignore/not ignore letters etc, you get the picture. I know of many more examples where students have done what was asked of them only to find out after months of processing that last years guidelines no longer apply, even for 2nd and 3rd year students.

The bureatic process is designed and supposed to be equitable and unbiased system, operating in a sterile environment free from political influence. The application forms, guidelines and civil servants are all expected to work together to produce the desired outcome respecting citizens rights and entitlements. Which leaves us to surmise that the problem with SUSI lies in this process. Students I have spoken to claim the application form was insufficent, it didn’t clearly state all the documents that would be needed. The guidelines were not based on common sense, and were therefore difficult to apply. One student was asked to prove residency with a letter from their secondary school, only after this was supplied, the student was told this evidence that no, a passport was the only way to prove residency. The student in question had weeks wasted, which turned into months because the student in question had no passport, forced to apply for one to complete the SUSI application.

It is safe to argue that government schemes guidelines have either changed or the method of application has been altered, and all this under the radar (conformation of this can only be made off the record, of course, so it is just one theory). SUSI is not the only scheme to cause problems for applicants, many schemes in the past two/three years have become very frustrating for applicants, with delays over a year in the case of invalidity pensions and subsequent appeals.

So what can the electorate do to register its dissatisfaction? Write a letter? Ring Joe? No, not if a clear signal is to be sent to the Government. Social media is a useful tool for registering annoyance or highlighting broken promises, but it exhausts our civic reserves.

Civic reserves usually fill as government policy hurts and discriminates;

some scholars argue that citizens, by exhausting their civic reserves, will not have any resources for mobilizing when really critical issues emerge” (Qvortrup, 2011)

So we have looked at some current examples of unfair and unjust cuts which are happening just under the radar in government schemes and hardship and frustration created through differing methods of application and misapplication of department guidelines. It is happening so the variable in this equation is you, what are you going to do about it?

A Brief Study of Women’s Participation in Irish Politics, using a comparative approach

The issue of citizenship, citizenship rights and responsibilities is the concern of every modern state.  As I compose this piece in 2012, there are currently two states governing four Irish provinces with a combined population of just under 6.5 million citizens on one island. One of these states actively excluded communities, leading to a lack of equality and the denial of citizenship rights including civil, political, social and cultural. A lot of work has been undertaken to improve citizenship rights including;

  • Civil – which relate to freedom of the person, freedom of speech, thought and faith. Freedom to own property and the right to justice.
  • Political – the right to participate in political processes including voting in elections.
  • Social – the right to live a civilised life with the right to economic welfare and security
  • Cultural – recognition of national and ethnic diversity including special rights for representation.

Differentiated citizenship is applicable to different groups, including women. The recent role of women in Irish politics famously began with the election of Countess Markievicz in 1918 to Parliament in London. She did not take up her seat and concentrated her efforts in forming the first Dáil. It was following a long campaign (thanks to Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and supporters), in 1918, Women over the age of 30 who owned property were given the right to vote and later in 1922, all women over the age of 21 got the vote (1928 in Britain after the violent suffrage campaign). Through citizenship and rights such as the right to vote, the state acknowledges it’s responsibility to those citizens who become, in an ideal system, active participants, influencing public discourse.

If we look at some of our neighbours in Europe it becomes clear that the inclusion of women in the Dáil in the early 20th century was ahead of its time, especially in contrast to France, which only gave women the vote in 1944. The Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) were and are largely involved in a more active citizenship, with Denmark giving women the right to vote in 1915 without the need for the violent suffrage movement. Theses countries have put gender equality at the fore of their political goals, incorporating at various stages quota systems to encourage more female participation. Interestingly, in Denmark, it was at the request of young female party members that the quota system was abandoned as it had served it’s purpose with the Nordic countries such as Sweden, topping the tables until 2003 when Rwanda over took Sweden with almost 49% female parliament members.

The most recent Women in Parliament study in October 2012 maps the percentage participation of women in parliaments across the world. As you would expect countries like Sweden are near the top (fourth at 44.7%), Rwanda has stayed at the top spot at 56.3% with Andorra and Cuba close behind. But what of Irish women in politics, surely with such a crucial role from the beginning, gender equality wouldn’t even need to be worked at, and it hasn’t been!. Although women did not get the vote in France until 22 years after Irish women, France sits 38th with 26.9% female participation. The Republic of Ireland is way down the list, sitting at 91st position (15.1%).  So by comparing these figures what do we learn?

By using a comparative approach we can look at how government policy, over time, improves gender equality . Comparison of various systems and policies and their results may help us to understand how the modern state can recognise diversity and actively encourage integration through participation. France, a fellow republic, passed a constitutional amendment in 1999 and an electorial law in 2000 regulating the proportion of women candidates in local, regional and European elections.Of course there were objections to this form of parity, mainly through worries that it would lead to  the under representation of other ethnic groups.

Comparing countries and policies does have limitations, and every state operates within its own specific parameters, but by comparing empirical research we can pick up worrying trends of inequality, mapping them over time and analysing whether policy changes have any effect. In Ireland, however , with gender quotas only coming on line in the near future, it appears that Ireland has become at least 20 years behind some of our neighbours in addressing the specific issue of gender inequality and female under representation in the Oireachtas. This is a worrying situation, especially if you consider that women outnumber men by 43, 864 overall in this state (2011 census).

The case for Legislation 2012 – Protecting the Life of a Mother, Sister, Daughter.

This issue of legislation has been avoided since 1992. Following the Supreme Court Judgment on the ‘X’ case and  referenda held on the same day as the 1992 General Election, subsequent governments have neglected to legislate for fear of repercussions at the ballot box (the other 2 referenda on abortion took place in 1983 and 2002).

Labour Members of the 27th Dáil elected in 1992 included Brendan Howlin, Joe Costello, Michael D. Higgins, Ruairí Quinn and Róisin Shorthall to name but a few.

Fianna Fáil members of the 27th Dáil also included such household names as Bertie Ahern and Míchael Martin (it’s worth clicking the link just to see him with a full head of hair!)

In 1992, despite an estimated 4,000 women travelling abroad for terminations, it was not an issue high up on the political agenda until February of that year, when the Attorney General sought an injunction against a 14 year old rape victim who was seeking to travel to the U.K for an abortion. The injunction was granted by the High Court, but the decision overturned by the Supreme Court which became know as the ‘X’ case (Kennelly & Ward, 1993, Folens).

There is comprehensive information on the internet so I’ll just add that an IMS poll conducted shortly after the three referenda in November 1992 found that of the people who were asked why they voted no, 48% said they felt the amendments would not rule out abortion, however, the same amount, 48%, voted no because they felt the proposed amendments would not protect the rights of the mother (Kennelly & Ward, 129,1993).

After a case taken in 2005 to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) by three women referred to as A, B and C; the ECtHR came to a unanimous decision that there had been a violation of the third applicant’s right under Article 8 of the Convention due to the failure to establish a legal framework to determine whether a woman qualfied for a legal abortion in Ireland.

“The potential impact of the ECtHR judgment in A, B & C v. Ireland on Irish abortion law is that it should result in clarification of the extant laws regarding access to lawful abortions. This is more of a subtle change as opposed to a radical overhaul of the status quo. The most significant implication of this ruling is that it will be increasingly impossible for the Irish government to continue to evade its responsibility to introduce legislation containing guidelines governing the provision of lawful abortions. Certainly Ireland could ignore this ruling, given that the Convention is sub-constitutional. However, the potential political ramifications of failing to do so are that it could jeopardise Ireland’s membership of the Council of Europe. Thus far, Ireland has been a good citizen in terms of complying with previous rulings from the ECtHR. Regulating the existing position regarding the right to a lawful abortion where the mother’s life is at risk would be less controversial than the alternative, that alternative being a Constitutional referendum on whether to liberalise the right to abortion to include health and well being, or indeed socio-economic grounds”. (Daly, p 216, 2011).

References

Daly, B.

‘“Braxton Hick’s” or the Birth of a New Era?
Tracing the Development of Ireland’s Abortion
Laws in Respect of European Court of
Human Rights Jurisprudence’, 2011, European Journal of Health Law.

Kennelly, B. Ward, E. p115, ‘The Abortion Referendums’, 1993, How Ireland Voted 1992, Folens.

“This is a Catholic Country”

One of the most stark quotes from today’s frontpage Irish Times article on the unnecessary suffering and death of 31 year old dentist, Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway last month. There is also an article on The Guardian website , and that’s just the start, search for news items on google and you will find  a comprehensive list of articles from across the globe. Attempts to draw up and enact legislation following a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights was rejected by 111 T.D’s in the Dáil as recently as April this year. 

You will find the link to the bill and who voted which way here. I myself sent an e-mail to each of the T.D’s who rejected the bill (the red list at the end), this morning; attaching a copy of the Irish Times Article. 

Although I most certainly did not vote for any of  the T.D’s on that list, I still feel a responsibility as a citizen of this country to ensure those T.D’s realise the consequences of their actions/inactions and that everytime they walk into that chamber, they have an opportunity to put the wrongs in this country, right.

Rest in Peace Savita Halappanavar, our thoughts are with your family. 

What the Children’s Referendum tells us about Irish Democracy.

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.” Robert M. Hutchins.

 
With one of the lowest voter turnout rates of 34%, and a Saturday polling day; the Children’s Rights Referendum could become a political case study indicative of a growing threat to Irish democracy and ultimately the Irish State. There are, of course, many reasons why voter’s don’t make it to the polls to cast their vote, inconvenient day or time, prior engagements, confusion on the issues being voted, disillusionment with the system etc. But in the grand scale of things when we look at figures produced by the Freedom House organisation, not every citizen lives in a country with political freedom and civil liberties.

 Freedom House was set up in 1941 in America to monitor freedom levels across the world and believes freedom is possible only in democratic political environments where governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women ( www.freedomhouse.org ). They work with a very simple scale determining whether a state is considered free, partly free or not free ( click here for more details ).

 On this scale, not surprisingly Ireland is rated as possessing a free electoral system, top marks. However, on the decline list you will now find Greece with the following reason for the country slipping in the listings; 

“Greece’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due the installation of an unelected
technocrat as prime minister following anti-austerity riots, and the growing influence of
outside entities over the country’s fiscal and economic policies.” (Freedom House, 2012, p21).

Are we on course to receive the same decline in freedom with this government at the helm?

Power is transferable, especially between the government, the state, its institutions, citizens and elements on the peripheral. If citizens relinquish their power by not voting in a democratic election, they risk transferring that power to another body, and as we have seen in our example of Greece above, other outside entities are only too ready to claim power from citizens in a country who don’t vote. 

Figures Demonstrating Freedom Around the World 2012.

 

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 So the next time you’re contemplating whether to vote or not, remember the citizens around the world who don’t have the luxury of that choice. Also consider whether you are prepared to lose the democracy you already have, as imperfect as it maybe, it will be too late when it’s gone and consider this;

“In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.”
Aristotle 

Cherishing the Wealthly

The 2010 study of the Irish Health Behaviour in School – Aged Children (HBSC) is an interesting read, as it provides a barometer on how various government policies and initiatives are reaching and influencing the lives of the nations’ children. More importantly, it illustrates inequalities that go against the hopes and aspirations contained in the Proclamation; that is; to cherish all of the nations children equally.

A quick read through of the report stops suddenly when confronted with the statistic that 21% of children when asked the question, ‘have you ever gone to bed or school hungry?’ reported yes as their answer. That is an increase  from the 2006 report of 17% (still an uncomfortable figure, possibly evidence, for those who need it, that the Celtic Tiger ‘boom’ years did not reach everyone). So when confronted with an answer like that, it begs, the question why? Why has there been such an increase in the statistics over that four year period and what can be done about it.

Over the recent years, with increased financial hardship and Austerity Budgets, families have had less money to cover basic necessities, economising on food bills to cover energy costs and mortgages etc. Even allowing for the fact that a lot of parents themselves would go hungry, before allowing their children to do so, means that these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, when we look at families as a whole. Sadly, the most vocal people, especially in the media, maintain there is no problem because they cannot see it. These figures tell different, with recent budgets favouring the wealthy, and attacking struggling families. This year’s St. Vincent de Paul pre-budget submission uses the following case study as an example;

Books or food?
Derek contacted the SVP on a Friday evening when his family had €3 to last them until the next week. He had to pay school expenses for his three children which meant the family had no money for food that week.
The SVP organised an immediate visit with food vouchers so that they could eat until their social welfare payment came through.’

 An increase, can be turned into a decrease if there is the will to do so. Around the time of the last budget, this problem had been foreseen by Sinn Féin through their proposed provision of school meals in their pre-budget submission, (p26) which would at least take some pressure of parents, decreasing the risk of children either going to bed or to school hungry. That is one targeted and costed solution for struggling families. 

Nobody believed that rescuing the wealthy of this nation was going to be easy, but surely this is too high a price to pay. I say rescuing the wealthy, on purpose, because up until now that has been and will continue to be government policy unless you change it.