Dermot Keyes reports
Two of the more under-represented groups in representative political terms: young adults and people with disabilities, had an opportunity to air their views at pre-election debates held in Waterford city last week.
On Tuesday last, the ‘We Matter’ debate, commendably organised by Leaving Certificate student Tadhg Williams (Abbey Community College), with the support of, was held in the Large Room at City Hall.
Meanwhile, on Thursday last, the Brothers of Charity held a pre-election debate attended by 40 service users at their Deise Laundry service at the Tramore Road Business Park.
During the ‘We Matter’ debate, the ongoing dispute over the recorded figure and what the opposition claims is the true figure of homeless in Waterford was a source of hearted disagreement between Mayor John Cummins (representing FG) and Senator David Cullinane (SF).
With a figure of 320 homeless referenced from the floor by Tadhg Williams, Mayor Cummins basing his figure of 89 on that provided to him by the City & County Council Housing Office, it’s clear that this discussion shall continue well into the life of the 32nd Dáil.
Senator Cullinane, who qualified that the figure had come from the floor from the co-moderator, said the figures in which he based Waterford’s homelessness came from Focus Ireland, Simon and other voluntary organisations.
Una Dunphy (AAA PBP) called for the introduction of long-term rent caps, “particularly in Waterford where the amount of money that you can get doesn’t come near the rent that is being asked for by private landlords at the moment. I don’t feel there is any point going on too much more about the number of homeless: we have a national disaster on our hands and the long-term solution to this emergency is a commitment to social housing, which has effectively ground to a halt under governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.”
With the absence of the Jigsaw (youth mental health) service in Waterford among the key matters raised during the debate, Senator Cullinane said that such service provision was vital as a means of assisting young people “experiencing a range of social and personal problems”.
He added: “This is an area that clearly needs resourcing and it’s been agreed among all political parties that mental health services have been very badly neglected – it’s been termed ‘The Cinderella’ of the health service as it hasn’t got the funding that it clearly needs. And while we have had some positive changes in this highly emotive area in recent years, it’s not something any of us ought to play politics with but we have to pinpoint where the funding needs to go; to me that’s into primary care and prevention. We’ve had the promise of primary care centres, and all the ancillary services that would go with such a facility, but these centres will have to be resourced if we’re to achieve more positive outcomes for young people experiencing difficulties.”
Mailo Power (Renua), who has worked at the Healing Arts Trust Centre in University Hospital Waterford, said it was essential that such specialised youth facilities were developed in the immediate future. “We need proper centres for young people with mental illnesses, and it is very important that children and adolescents are no longer admitted into adult wards.”
Edward Quilty (DDI) said the government has “a huge amount of ground to make up” on the many volunteer-led organisations throughout the State, including Pieta House and Childline, “and governments must do more, and treat mental illness just like any other illness”.
Mayor Cummins said that while the reported annual figures of death by suicide have averaged 600 in recent years, in reality remains that the figure is, sadly, even higher than that. “It’s critical that we fund these services, and I feel a co-ordinated approach from voluntary organisations would be another logical step in the right direction. I’ve worked extensively with Pieta House and we’re going to have a Pieta House here in Waterford before the next ‘Darkness Into Light’ walk but it’s important to recognise that there has been a €160 million increase in mental health funding since 2012. Is that enough? It probably isn’t, and that’s why we’ve committed another €175 million in funding over the next five years.”
Among the key matters raised at the Brothers of Charity debate on Thursday morning last was the prospect of people with disabilities being represented via a full senior seat at the cabinet table.
The question, fielded by service user and Portlaw resident Grace Howley, won widespread support from the election candidates in attendance, although Deputy Ciara Conway (Labour) felt such a move wasn’t the only means of safeguarding the disability sector’s needs.
“Having a standalone minister is really important,” said Senator Cullinane. “But the most important thing is to have a plan, a vision and a strategy and to have a government that wants to invest in supporting people with disabilities.
“What we’ve called for is for the Department of An Taoiseach, in the next Dáil, under his remit, the issue of inclusion and supporting people with disabilities as it needs to be given the very highest priority. As the leader of the cabinet, the Taoiseach is the person who needs to drive policy on this issue, and Sinn Féin would like to see this being put in place, along with a standalone minister.”
For her part, Deputy Conway told service users: “Rather than see the money going in to set up a full department and a full ministry, I’d like to see such monies being invested into services, and the creation of a ‘passport’ between departments in terms of assessments and form filling, rather than having to fill out the same form, time and time again, with Education, with Social Welfare, with the Department of Jobs or with the HSE.
“So what I would like to see is the development of such a passport system to ensure people get the services that they need and that valuable time isn’t taken up with filling up forms just for the sake of filling up forms.”
Deputy Conway added: “I think it’s really important that the government is more outward looking when it comes to helping people and working alongside people with disabilities in a way that makes the system more user friendly and that’s what I would like to see put in place, to make sure that the people in this room get the services they both need and deserve.”
* Many thanks to the organisers of both events for their kind invitations.