Andrew Lynch: Why are our carers struggling due to cutbacks while millions are spent on a ‘sky garden’ and RTE TV stars’ salaries?
What kind of country are we living in? After all the national euphoria created by last month's visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama, it's now time for us to take a long, hard look at how exactly we are going to share the burden of this recession.
The last 48 hours have shown that behind all the shiny new 'Is Feidir Linn' rhetoric, those who have least are still being asked to sacrifice most -- while a pampered elite at the top of society carry on splurging public money as if nothing much has changed.
On Monday night, another excellent Prime Time Investigates documentary spelled out in graphic detail just how the latest round of savage health cuts has destroyed people's lives.
We saw a woman suffering from spinal decompression, who has to be washed, dressed and fed every day by her teenage son. She desperately needed an MRI scan, but the waiting list has slowly stretched from five to 11 months -- which means she lives in constant pain and often goes to bed just to give the boy a break.
We saw another woman being reduced to tears when her severely autistic daughter refused to stop hitting her. The number of hours' relief that she receives from the HSE every week has recently been reduced from 12 to five, while she even had to plead for special treatment in order to attend her mother's funeral.
We saw a former Irish boxing champion, now confined to a wheelchair, trapped in Donnybrook's Royal Hospital because the HSE cannot find the resources to give him suitable accommodation. He freely admits that there are days when he wonders if he would be better off throwing himself under a bus.
We saw a boy who will have part of his spine removed because he had to wait years for treatment, a man with Huntington's Disease who only wants to die with dignity in his own home, and parents who skip meals because it is the only way to make sure their children don't starve.
These isolated and helpless people have all suffered from a reduction in the carers' allowance, a loss of in-home assistance or some other aspect of the €1.7bn health cuts implemented since 2008.
Their finances are so precarious that even the recent loss of €16 from the weekly carers' payment can mean having to go cold or hungry. One woman in Barry O'Kelly's heartbreaking report came close to breaking down as she spoke about having to sell her wedding dress in order to pay the family heating bill.
These people have one other thing in common too -- they are all heroes. Ireland's 161,000 carers save the state millions of euro every year by looking after their loved ones, but they still have to go down on bended knees to secure their basic human rights.
There have been horrific stories about the manner in which they are treated by the HSE, with one woman applying for incontinence pads and being asked to monitor how much liquid she was giving to her mother.
The standard response from official circles is that while this is all very sad, there just isn't any money to spare right now. Anyone who's bothered to read the news headlines recently will know that this simply isn't true.
On the same day that Prime Time Investigates was broadcast, we learned that the taxpayer is due to fork out up to €2.3m for a 'Sky Garden' by Diarmuid Gavin, the celebrity horticulturist who obviously doesn't do things by halves.
Since it's already won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, we're sure the landscape will be lovely to look at when it finds a permanent home in Ireland -- but at a time when severely disabled children cannot get life-changing operations, it suggests that Failte Ireland and Cork City Council (who are co-funding the project) have a rather warped sense of priorities.
The carers of Ireland will also have been interested to hear that although enterprise minister Richard Bruton wants to cut Sunday and overtime wages for lower-paid workers, the Government has rejected any suggestion that it might cap the salaries of RTE's star presenters.
And while finance minister Michael Noonan plans to raid private pensions, ex-senator Ivor Callely is set to receive €63,000 a year for the rest of his life.
The truth is that we don't just have a two-tier health system, we have a two-tier society. During the Celtic Tiger years, more money was pumped into the public sector than ever before.
But despite all the billions that were spent, we never managed to eliminate waiting lists or repair our broken-down schools -- and if that didn't happen in the boom, it's hard to imagine it happening in the bust.
On last night's Prime Time, James Reilly said he was upset by the scenes from Monday's prgramme and promised to rejig his budget in order to help the individuals featured.
Although the health minister clearly deserves some more time to prove himself, his unusually subdued demeanour suggests that the chances of any radical improvements are pretty slim.
It was also revealed by Miriam O'Callaghan that many upset viewers had contacted the programme with offers of financial assistance to the families involved.
The Irish people's hearts are clearly in the right place, even if the political system often acts as if its own heart has been surgically removed.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. By those standards, official Ireland has let itself down very badly.
Enda Kenny seems to have borrowed Barack Obama's 'Yes We Can' as his Government's new slogan -- but that's not much use if he never bothers to finish the sentence.