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Ireland: Pensioners' revolt - government forced back
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, on 18 October.
Socialist Party reporter, (CWI, Ireland)
The demonstration was part of a countrywide 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 the 14 October 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 Street.
Despite the march being called at only one day's 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 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 to 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 on 30 September 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 22 October at Dáil Eireann (national parliament). Media reports say up to 25,000 pensioners and workers attended.
At the protest, former Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins drew the loudest cheers when he accused the government of bailing out the banks at the expense of the pensioners.
"The bankers escaped in a limousine being paid for by you and me with the minister for finance at the wheel, and the Taoiseach [prime minister] directing traffic. And in their haste to escape, when they saw the pensioners, instead of throwing some of the billions of loot out the window, they drove right through them and snatched their medical cards as they went," he said.
Following the budget, Taoiseach Brian Cowen went on national TV and radio to call for compromise. On 21 October (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 [for the medical card] by 460 euro to 700 euro per week for a single person and 1,400 euro a week for a couple. They claimed that 95% of pensioners would be entitled to the card under the new provisions.
This represented a major climbdown 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 1,800 people and had to be moved from a Dublin hotel room to a nearby Church to properly accommodate 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 14 October 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.
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 to 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.
In The Socialist 29 October 2008:
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