Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Budget outcry rattles Cowen

Taoiseach Brian Cowen yesterday launched an emergency attempt to cope with a phenomenal wave of public and political criticism of health cuts for the elderly in his budget.

Political turmoil erupted on a major scale after the Irish government announced an end to the system of free medical cards for the over-70s, triggering anxiety among the elderly population in the Republic.

One of Mr Cowen's backbenchers has become a local hero by resigning from his Fianna Fail party while others, together with independent members important to the government, have voiced strong public opposition to the measure.

The political reality that the new provision will have to be radically modified was illustrated yesterday when the aunt of Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said this part of his budget would have to be looked at again.

The significance of this is that Mary O'Rourke is both in her 70s and is a formidable politician and cabinet minister. She declared briskly that she was sure ministers “would pay heed to all that has been said”.

Backbenchers say they have been inundated with calls from the public expressing anger and indignation at the measure affecting the elderly.

Last week's budget brought in many cuts in government spending. Almost all of the austerity measures were regarded as inevitable, but the medical card removal was regarded as a cut too far, and one which unfairly targeted the vulnerable elderly.

The scheme confused many as its details took days to emerge generating more alarm among pensioners. An Irish government backbencher said: “Everybody is frightened and traumatised.”

Yesterday Mr Cowen sought to defuse the sense of crisis, saying in an Irish radio broadcast he had delayed joining an important trade mission to China to attempt to sort things out.

He appealed for “some time and space in which to do that in a way which respects the parameters of the budget arithmetic”.

“This is not the ultimate proposal because it doesn't merit or have the wider public acceptance that it would need to have. I'm addressing those concerns,” he added.

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