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Spirit of Contradiction

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Human Rights in Ireland
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Interview with Dan Boyle on Disability Issues

category national | health / disability issues | opinion/analysis author Monday June 27, 2005 00:47author by Miriam Cotton Report this post to the editors

Dan Boyle doesn’t represent any West Cork constituency but he is TD for Cork South Central, which is not a million miles away. His voice is increasingly influential in national and south western regional policy-making and he is also Party Chief Whip, Spokesperson for Finance & Social & Family Affairs, Community, Rural Development and the Islands.

There were two reasons for wanting to talk to Dan Boyle for this article: firstly, unlike most of our national representatives he has contributed a lot to public debate (including some hard-hitting speeches in the Dail) about services for people with disability and in the opinion of many his contributions have been welcome and insightful about the difficulties that people are facing. So, credit where it’s due. Secondly, and in view of the mounting frustration and dismay that is felt by groups around the country about government attitudes to disability issues, it seemed worth exploring an alternative approach to our political system to see what possibilities it might hold.

The Green Party’s offices in Douglas Street in Cork could not be described as plush. When I visited, Dan was to be found tucked away at the back of a narrow open-plan office shared by two others - with every inch of space efficiently organised to optimise its possible uses. The first observation that Boyle makes is one that is heard more and more frequently. ‘The disability lobby is really punching well below its weight and it is surprising that there is not more challenge to government policy. For example, where the disability bill is concerned there needs to be more of a coordinated effort – the campaign needs to regain the momentum that it had a few years ago and the voluntary sector needs to exercise its considerable muscle. People are accustomed to thinking of farmers, for instance, as a powerful lobby but the disability lobby is actually much bigger.’ Boyle also points out that while there has been some increase in funding to different areas of disability, the progress has not been consistent across the spectrum with most of it linked to the economic activity of people with ‘higher functioning’ disabilities. He says that, despite the recent legislation ‘most of the real change we have seen has come from individual challenges in the courts such as the O’ Donoghue and Sinnott cases. While it may still be necessary for individuals to have to go through this sort of process, it’s not a good way to establish entitlements. Government should be much more proactive and accept the responsibility they have for addressing the needs of people who, after all, elected them for exactly that purpose in the first place! There is still a very evident attitude that assumes people with disability are ‘another’ or separate group who are outside the mainstream. This is completely untrue, of course - we know that approximately a quarter to a third of the population are affected by disability – either directly themselves or as family members and carers.’

Having once worked as a Vocational Officer for the National Rehabilitation Board where he was responsible for securing employment opportunities for people with mild learning disabilities, Boyle has direct experience of the difficulties that people face. ‘It was very much the case that people were – and often still are - written off economically and we wanted to do something to challenge that assumption. Our work in this regard turned out to be quite successful and it evolved into what is now known in Cork as Garden Industries.’ This experience has no doubt informed Boyle’s political convictions. When I ask what he thinks the Green Party has to offer people with disability that other parties do not he says ‘As a smaller political party the Greens have an affinity to marginalized groupings. There is a real need for public engagement with such groups and for cooperation across the whole voluntary sector. This would benefit the interests of disabled people. People with disabilities are not adequately represented on national bodies if at all so that the policy debates are not informed by their perspective. But this goes to the heart of how unrepresentative our government actually is. When you consider that it is not representative of the population by age, gender, economic or social experience you understand why it continues largely only to address the narrower focus of the needs and perspective of its own members. We would like to see that situation change.’ Boyle’s summary of what the Green Party stands for is perhaps as relevant a definition of what a political party should be as any you are likely to hear. He says ‘the Greens are not just about the environment, important though that is, we are in fact primarily concerned with the use and abuse of resources for everyone and of access to them. This can only be achieved by greater democratic involvement at personal and local as well as at national level. That is really the key and if we can achieve it, other things are more likely to fall into place. Neither do we see the pursuit of power as being our exclusive objective. As an opposition party we also have an important role to play in trying to hold the government to account for its use of those resources and the way in which they are managed.’ With another general election looming in the middle distance the disability lobby might do worse than to use these well articulated principles as a template for assessing who will actually deserve their votes!

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