‘DO NOT OPEN UNTIL WELL AFTER CHRISTMAS’

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With the gloom that followed the tragic events of September, the bombings, strife and personal tragedies that filled our national newspapers, and the growing talk of Celtic-tiger-influenza, it has been a pretty dismal winter. Santa is now yesterday’s man—we’ve moved firmly into the new eur–o—but we still don’t really know what was in his sack of goodies for the disability community. We haven’t been allowed to tear off the wrapping paper yet! And there’s a niggling worry that some of the pretty parcels may not live up to the pre-Christmas promises.

During 1997 the government announced an ambitious capital and revenue programme for disability services. Relatively speaking, the past three years have been good and we acknowledge and appreciate the improvements that have been made to upgrade facilities and initiate new programmes. But there are far too many people—especially those with autism, a dual diagnosis, or those still housed in large institutions or hospitals—who still await appropriate services. If funding levels are reined in now, numbers in that unhappy limbo will expand rapidly. It has to be said, therefore, that the Budget on 5 December was very discouraging.

The Task Force on Autism, established to trumpet-blare in the autumn of 2000, completed its work in mid-2001. But despite leaked reports in the newspapers last November, the full report has still not been published. And the ‘blank cheques’ in the context of funding special educational needs have hardly been heard of, let alone seen, since they were enticingly referred to last summer.

The government announced approval of proposals for an Education (Disabilities) Bill after the cabinet meeting on 11 December, but the press release contained a most disquieting second headline: ‘Bill goes as priority to parliamentary draftsman’. In other words the full Bill is unlikely to appear for several months.

The promise of an ombudsman for children—that’s another piece of legislation promised ‘before Christmas’.

The courts appear to be battening down the hatches. If the doctrine of separation of powers (admittedly an important concept in democracy) is to be interpreted as restricting the judiciary to the declaration of rights, not to ordering that such rights be given efficacy, then the only recourse for Irish citizens seeking vindication or redress will continue to be via the traditional route to the parish-pump-politician. That can sometimes be an effective approach in individual cases, but not one that demonstrates equity and fairness for groups of disadvantaged citizens.

More encouragingly—following the chorus of ‘why are we waiting?’ from people across-disabilities at the ‘Get your Act Together’ conference on December 3rd—the heads of the Disability Bill were announced four days before Christmas, while the Dáil was in recess and we were all helping Santa load his sleigh. Again, the actual Bill is awaited and a major miracle may be needed to get it on the statute book before the general election. But the government promise must be honoured, and without stifling useful debate/amendments to ensure a meaningful piece of legislation.

It is, of course, just as easy for admirable statements of intent to be issued from the safety of the opposition benches, as it is for the parties in government to repeat their aspirational plans. Let’s hope the Oireachtas has made a collective new year’s resolution to improve its legislative record, for the good of all the citizens.

The usual clichés apply for Frontline and our readers: Keep our eye on the ball (not just during the World Cup!); work more closely together to develop efficient services within available resources; continue to advocate for human rights. Because the people for whom we advocate—and their family and support staff—are worth it!

Our sincere thanks to Michael Shevlin who coordinated the Focus on education for this issue, and to Seán Griffin, Peggy Barragry and Rosemary Kilpatrick who joined him in the feature. We continue to be indebted to all the authors, around Ireland and abroad, who share their insights and expertise with Frontline readers. Please—more of you—let us know your opinions and news.