Ireland: Pensioners’ revolt – government forced back

Backlash against government’s attack on the elderly

Three thousand people attended a protest march organised by the Campaign for a Real Public Health Service, a campaign initiated by Socialist Party activists and other health campaigners, in Cork city in Southern Ireland, on Saturday, October 18.

The demonstration was part of a state-wide revolt by pensioners against an attempt by the Fianna Fail-Green Party- Progressive Democrat Government to end automatic medical card entitlement (free health care) for over 70s in their October 14 Budget.

Angry marchers chanted "Shame, Shame, Shame; Shame on Fianna Fail!" and "Hit the Bankers, Not the Pensioners" as they made their way down Cork city’s main thoroughfare, Patrick’s St. Placards carried included the slogans "Fianna Fail: In Bed With Fat Cats" and "Are Ye Trying to Fill the Graveyards Quicker?". Despite the march being called at only one days notice, pipers and drummers showed up to lead the protest. Hundreds of shoppers lined the kerbs to applaud as the march wound by. A large rally in Opera House Square heard speakers from the Campaign for a Real Public Health Service, the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament and city councillors Mick Barry (Socialist Party) and Cllr Jonathon O’Brien (Sinn Fein). Mick Barry was met with loud applause, when he demanded that the unions get down off the fence to defend their retired members and called for big business, the bankers and the rich to be made pay for the crisis.

For a full week after Budget Day TDs (MPs) were inundated with phone calls from angry pensioners and their families and radio phone-ins were dominated by the topic. It became a "lightning rod" issue around which anger at the Government’s anti-working class Budget crystallised. This anger was stoked by the decision of the Irish Government made on September 30 to provide a 500 billion euro guarantee to the banks to stave off a collapse of Irish banks, following heavy losses on the stock exchanges.

A national demonstration was called by the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament for Wednesday, October 22 at Dáil Eireann (national parliament). All the indications were that this protest would involve tens of thousands, with elderly citizens phoning radio shows to say that they had hired buses from the most remote corners of the state. The Government made concessions two days after the Budget increasing the eligibility threshold by forty euro. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen went on national TV on Friday night and national radio on Sunday, to call for compromise. On Tuesday, October 21 (the day before the national demo) Cowen, Health Minister Mary Harney and Green Party leader John Gormley held a press conference where they raised the eligibility limits by 460 euro – to 700 euro per week for a single person and 1400 euro per week for a couple. They claimed that 95% of pensioners would be entitled to the card under the new provisions.

Government forced back

This represented a major climb-down by the Government and was followed within hours by an announcement that the new Lenihan Levy (a 1% levy on all incomes) would not be applied now to workers on the minimum wage or people with lesser incomes (including pensioners with the state pension as the sole or main source of income).

The Government’s major concession does, however, include a significant sting in the tail, ie it still overturns the automatic entitlement to the medical card for over 70s. There is a strong suspicion that income eligibility thresholds, set high now under popular pressure, could be reduced at some stage in the future. The result is that the movement, while undoubtedly lessened, has by no means come to a halt.

A public meeting organised by an advocacy group, Age Action Ireland, held one hour after the Government’s press conference was attended by 1800 people and had to be moved from a Dublin hotel room to a nearby Church to properly accomodate the crowd. A Fianna Fail junior minister and a Progressive Democrat senator were shouted down by the angry crowd.

Late that night TV commentator Vincent Browne commented that a church full of pensioners had shaken the Government in a way that the leaders of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions were incapable of doing.

The Senior Citizens Parliament announced that the Dail protest would go ahead to demand the restoration of the automatic entitlement and up to 15,000 people attended the next day. TV news coverage prominently featured a Socialist Party placard "Hit the Bankers Not the Pensioners". Joe Higgins, former Socialist Party TD, spoke at the protest, and was greeted with enthusiastic support.

Some protests have been called again for this Saturday (including a Campaign for a Real Public Health Service protest in Cork and a pensioners protest actively supported by the Campaign and the Socialist Party in Limerick) and these protests will give an idea as to whether the movement will continue or whether it might recede following the Government concessions and the passing of a little time.

Government weakened

A Green Party TD has admitted that the Government came closing to falling on the issue. One Fianna Fail TD resigned from the party over the controversy and Finian McGrath, an independent TD, withdrew his support from the Government reducing the Government majority from 12 to 8 with other TDs wavering before the concessions were made. The Government’s cohesion and (already faltering) confidence have been struck heavy blows by the revolt.

The October 14 Budget included 2 billion euro worth of tax hikes and charges and a billion euro worth of cutbacks in social spending. Despite this, Goodbody Stockbrokers have criticised the Budget as having been insufficiently harsh and have raised the prospect of the need for a mini-Budget in the spring, to bring in harder measures in the face of Ireland’s worsening economic crisis. Whether this ensues or not, there will undoubtedly be a stepping up of attacks on working class people in 2009.

However, the pensioners revolt raises sharply the question as to whether the Fianna Fail-led Government will be capable of implementing this programme. The Government are on the back foot and a mood that ordinary people should not be made pay for the crisis has been brought to the surface by this controversy. The question of sharp education cuts (including increases in class sizes that will make Southern Irish classrooms the most overcrowded in the EU) will now come to the forefront and teacher unions are already talking of a campaign on the issue.

After more than a decade of an unprecedented economic boom, things have suddenly become a lot more interesting in Southern Ireland.

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October 2008