LIZ McMANUS, TD, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Spokesperson on Health spoke with Mary de Paor on 25 January 2005.


Would you talk about the political process and how it may or may not assist people with intellectual disabilities—and how they might use it more effectively?
Well, one of the delights, or crosses, that we bear as Irish politicians—depending on your outlook—is the fact that we’ve a very personal, intimate relationship with the electorate. I don’t know of any other country where it’s so personal. And most of us have arrangements—clinics or constituency offices—where the public can meet us. That means that no matter who you are, you have the exact same relationship with your public representative—because you have a thing called a vote. And anybody who has the vote is seen and perceived as somebody of importance to the public representative. As long, of course, as they’re reminded occasionally that this is the case! That relationship is important to the individual voter, and to the public representative. I depend on that relationship to keep me on the straight and narrow in terms of getting it right.

So you make use of it as much as your constituents do?
I depend on it! A lot of the time you’ll hear the same problems, of course, but you’re also getting a very good flavour as to what’s going on out there. They said about Mary Robinson, that she was successful in the presidential election because she harpooned the great white whale (just under the surface of the water)—public opinion. And we all have to do that. It may not be immediately obvious—if you pick up a newspaper, you will never get that sense of what’s really going on. You will get things based on plans or prejudice—the market being aimed at—things created as issues, rather than the real issues on the ground.

You say the relationship between constituents/voters and their public representative is a very personal relationship—do you think it should be like that?
Yes, I do. Because for people who are marginalised, and who don’t have clout—it can be the only way they have to reach a person in authority. If that’s cut off, we become disconnected, and less likely to hear their messages. We’d be meeting business interests and the trade unions, but we wouldn’t be meeting the woman with five children and no breadwinner. But she has a right to be noted, just like everybody else.

So if you had a child with a disability and no service—would you actually go to your TD?
Well, you can do a number of things. You go to the services, of course, first. You write to your TD or to the party spokespersons—for instance, I can table parliamentary questions on anything I like. And I do. And you can write to the Minister. When I was a Minister, I read everything that came to me. I may not have been able to act on it directly, but it was important and it certainly fed in to my thought processes.

At least, then, you can say you’ve tried. You may think nothing will ever change, and then, suddenly the door opens. That happens for politicians too. And that’s the great dynamic in the whole thing.

How do you think politicians, practically, view people with intellectual disability?
With great inattention, as everybody else does! One of the things that I’m very conscious of is how the whole issue of intellectual disability/mental health is very, very far down on the list of political priorities. It has changed somewhat—in terms of the money that has gone into disability, generally—and that has to be recognised. And I think the fact that somebody like Fergus Finlay, being in the right place at the right time, with a mission, was able to effect so much change. It’s not something that you can plan and arrange to happen, but it can be hugely significant. That led to the establishment of the Commission and getting rid of discrimination and building up the process towards a rights-base. Of course, it’s a very difficult journey, and there are lots of setbacks. But I think that was a pretty defining moment; it was put into the government programme—disability was a very central issue.

So, to be effective in the political process, you’re talking about lobbying, you’re talking about keeping in close contact with the spokespersons on health and disability—and being on top of any legislation. Sometimes organisations aren’t quick enough, or au fait enough, to influence the legislative process as they could. Things can change very quickly, and it’s difficult to keep up to speed on everything. I think every organisation should nominate one person to get know the Dáil, someone who comes in and learns how the system works—attends committee meetings and checks on the progress of bills. If you know what’s coming up—if a bill will be at second stage in a fortnight’s time, you know that you have to get your suggested amendments in to the spokespersons within days.

Politicians are inundated with paper. A lot of statutory and other agencies produce their glossy annual reports—we sometimes get two and three copies of them! They’re about everything under the sun, and it’s very difficult to sift out what you need. I don’t even get to all the things that I know I should be reading. But sometimes I can refer back to them when we’re debating that issue.

One of the very hopeful things is that the new Oireachtas Commission is going to ensure that TDs can have a researcher. I think that will transform the way we operate—certainly, speaking for myself- There will be somebody to make sure that I’m up to speed on policy matters, that I’m getting good material and asking the right questions, and the hard questions. At the moment I have no research support—so a lot of the time I’m just quoting from memory and trying to remember everything. Researchers will be important people for an organisation to link in with—and building up those relationships is important; it’s all about communication.

One thing, too, you should try to get things onto one page. People think that quantity equals quality, and actually it’s very hard to get it read that way.

Do you think that there is an equitable way of dealing with all the competing wishes and needs of people, especially marginalised people?
Obviously it’s very complex. The Labour Party perspective is encapsulated very well by Pat Rabbitte’s ‘Fair Society’. We have a checklist of priorities. That’s why I did the mental health document—there were lots of needs in the health area, but mental health isn’t getting a chance to articulate theirs. You have to be sensitive to knowing what the marginalised need, because they often aren’t able to represent themselves. We can afford so much more now in terms of creating a fairer society. And yet we’re not doing it. If there is a disadvantage, you need to commandeer resources in a way that connects up with the community. And you have to concentrate on the people who are isolated, people who suffer great disability, and their families around them who are maybe very isolated too, apart perhaps from their local organisation. You have to see beyond the big interests who are always there. And I think the Labour Party record on that is very good.

But, if you have only targeted initiatives, people can lose out as well. If you only focus on areas of disadvantage, what happens to the people who are just above the cut-off? I would go back to Noel Browne’s idea of universal care—the Mother and Child Scheme. People said, what about rich mothers? But, I think that there are some universal principles that should be applied to all, particularly in the area of health. You can target initiatives, but you also have to find a balance—following universal principles, and at the same time trying to ensure that there are targeted initiatives. You can design systems that are quite complicated, in order to meet quite complicated needs. But you do have to be careful of the very large vested interests who are always demanding and shouting.

In my view, one of the great things about a party in opposition is that you have time to work out what you want to do and roughly how long it will take. Being in government shouldn’t be just about having power, but about using power for an end, an objective. It’s not just about governing, but what you’re governing for. And while you’re in opposition you can develop policy—some will have to be adapted, but some of policies them will continue on into government. Being in government can be very chaotic—there are crises all the time. So you need to have a clear vision before you are there. A programme for government is a statement of priorities. Then you can say—we said we’d do this, and we didn’t commit to that—maybe we can come to that in the future. But the programme provides a structure of priorities to work from. That’s why it’s so important for disability groups to be in at the planning.

(In January, when Liz McManus spoke to Frontline, the Labour Party had just published its policy document on mental health: Changing our mindset: Labour’s approach to mental health.)

  • Liz McManus asserts the value of the personal relationship between Irish politicians and their constituents, as an essential way for politicians to keep in touch with genuine public opinion and concern, and for voters to have access to the political process. Every voter has an equal right of access to their public representative.
  • Liz suggests that the disability ‘lobby’ should delegate someone to become fully au fait with Dáil procedures and practice—making submissions toward policy formation, attending committees, monitoring legislative progress, amendments, etc.
  • While not currently ‘in power’, parties in opposition can be engaged more fully in policy formation. Interest groups can hope to influence this process.
  • Opposition spokespersons (and local TDs) can ask parliamentary questions to raise issues of particular concern to individuals or organisations.
  • TDs will soon have the services of individual researchers, who will be important contacts for interest groups.
  • Submissions, memos etc need to be succinct—politicians are inundated with paper.