Unpacking the political process

by Colin Griffiths

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As a, to some extent, objective observer of the provision of and access to disability services in Ireland over the past 30 years I have often wondered how it is that services are available in such an apparently uneven fashion. It seems to me that one important factor in the distribution of service provision is geographical—if you live in the right place you will get a service, but if you live in the wrong place then no matter how dire your need there is no service available. As to the quality of the service, well that largely appears to depend on two factors: the culture that exists in the service provider, and the quality and commitment of the staff who work in it. This uneven distribution of good services is mirrored in the educational sector where, as Sheelah (that’s the spelling in the article??) Flatman Watson points out, it is largely a matter of chance whether pupils with intellectual disability will receive a supportive education that meets their needs.

This edition of Frontline was planned to address some of these matters; that is, how as a service user one might utilise the political process in the first instance to obtain a service that suits one’s needs and, secondly, how disability pressure groups might be able to influence the distribution and quality of services that are available in Ireland.

In order to do this we determined to put a set of questions to key representatives of the main political parties. Thus we sought interviews with Tánaiste Mary Harney, Liam Twomey [Fine Gael], Liz McManus [Labour], as well as with Finian McGrath [Independent], and MEP Kathy Sinnott. Perhaps understandably Mary Harney has not got back to us, however Liam Twomey and Kathy Sinnott also did not respond to our requests for interviews. We therefore offer perhaps a slightly left-of-centre view of political process, but one which demonstrates the commitment of those who were willing to enlighten us.

What did we learn? Well, it became clear that the high ratio of TDs to members of the electorate means that we have plentiful access to our elected representatives. Secondly, the relatively low priority that politicians give to disability issues became obvious fairly quickly. Thirdly, there are some politicians who are committed to people with disability, but there are not enough of them. How then can the great bulk of TDs and senators be mobilised? The personal relationship seems to be part of the answer; Finain McGarth says ‘meet your TD face-to-face’. Ger South suggests that the media have a powerful role to play in bringing to light the difficult circumstances that some people with intellectual disability have to contend with. Liz McManus notes that the disability lobby should appoint full-time lobbyists to the Oireachtas. Lastly, all the contributors to this feature note the importance of the rights of the individual and that the vindication of these rights is a central goal that may ultimately make the need to lobby individual TDs and senators redundant. Might part of the explanation for the apparent resistance of the government to fully grant a rights-based disability bill be that it would mean there is less need for individual politicians to intercede on their constituents’ behalf?

Finally, can I put in a request to readers? One of the goals of Frontline is to showcase the abilities and talents of people around the country. Each edition aims to present in the ‘Gallery’ section the best of art, sculpture and photographic work that people with intellectual disability create. I suspect that there are many talented artists, sculptors and photographers whose work has not seen the light of day. If you come into that category, please contact Frontline either by post or by email (frontline@indigo.ie). Maybe your work can be presented to a wider audience.

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