Snaking along a Kafkaesque labyrinth

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BY HARRY REID

It is a bad moment. A slow motion hexed collision.

The teacher’s anaconda eyes skewer me with the look of an employer repelled by an applicant’s incongruous belch at a job interview.

Profanity had scorched the ears of eight-year-old innocents, and she had spied the expletive expending banshee culprit.

Seeking sanctuary from the lashing tail of hurricane Gonzalo whipping across Stormont estate, I’d ducked behind the wind-break of a parked school bus. Swearing at the violent buffeting I’d just escaped, I came face to face with both the huddled school party and my mistake. Sensing that this was not now a place of welcome, I shrugged the apology of a tangled marionette and launched myself back out into the gale heading for the café where Massey Avenue meets Stormont.

Earlier the same morning I’d watched her chivying a crocodile of eight year olds squirming and squirting themselves into the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings ahead of their tour of democracy in action, or at least the Northern Irish karaoke version of it.

For my part I joined a flock of lobbyists and advocates being led into the Kafkaesque labyrinth of corridors that led to Room 274.

This was to be the scene of the October meeting of the All Party Group on Disability. Anyone familiar only with the Punch and Judy show of the Assembly’s chamber, or the fighting talk delivered down a TV camera from elsewhere in the Stormont Death Star, would be pleasantly taken aback by the industrious activity and the manner in which it is conducted, in the institution’s All Party groups.

Now almost four dozen in number, All Party Groups exist for MLAs of all stripes to collaborate to make concrete progress on bread and butter issues of mutual concern to both themselves and the people who have elected them.

Today in Room 274 the compelling issue of concern is what can be done to inject some life into, and propel some concrete action from the Executive’s Disability Strategy. It all should have been something of a no brainer.

Published in February 2013, the Strategy acknowledged that as only dead people experienced a higher level of social exclusion, inequality and disadvantage than people with disabilities, real imagination and energetic commitment had now to be harnessed to radically challenge and change a situation that was universally acknowledged as a genuine scandal.

Launched by the two OFM/DFM Ministers, as part of their Executive-wide responsibility for coordinating concrete progress on equality issues, the Disability Strategy had the advantage of coming out of a decade of official discussion, research and planning. Those at the All Party Group meeting on this blustery Tuesday morning in October listened as the evidence stacked up that the promise and momentum of all this work had floundered.

Those present from disability organisations recounted not only a lack of concrete significant action designed to make the Strategy happen, but that the Clerk of the Assembly’s OFM/DFM scrutiny Committee had reported that reviewing progress under it wasn’t even on the Committee’s work-plan.

Later, having made it to the appropriately named Storm in A Teacup café located where Massey Avenue meets Stormont estate, I reflected on MLAs decision to host an event on February 17 next year to call to account all those across Government departments charged with taking the clear actions needed to improve the lives and future prospects of disabled people here.

Will it, I wondered, herald the much needed wind of change to finally address the third class status of disabled people here? Without a crystal ball I couldn’t answer my own question, but I can guess, and then again in turn hope.

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