Tuesday 25 October 2016

'Effigies of me were burned on bonfires... it hurt my parents and husband' - Former Tanaiste Mary Harney on Health tenure

Published 19/05/2016 | 14:35

Mary Harney. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Mary Harney. Photo: Steve Humphreys

FORMER leader of the Progressive Democrats Mary Harney has spoken of her time as Health Minister, with a veiled reference to her reform of the health service, saying she has learned that “getting bogged down in structural change is not a very worthwhile task.”

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The 63-year-old former politician – who made the switch to the world of industry and commerce after leaving politics in 2011 – told a meeting of women  business leaders that she had chosen to become Minister of Health because she “loves challenges.”

However she learned that  “in each job you can only do incremental change,” she said.

She said that ‘if she has learned anything’ over the course of her political career,  it was that getting bogged down in structural change is not a very worthwhile task.

“ And I would tell anybody in a ministerial role to avoid structural change unless it’s very necessary because it is all-consuming for the people who work in an organisation,” she said, adding that “sometimes there’s confusion between structural reform and the real reason the structure is in place which is to make things happen.”

At a breakfast event held by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) at the Westin Hotel in Dublin today, she spoke of the “incredibly controversial” reform of national cancer services- consolidated into eight centres -  which caused Brian Cowen’s government to lose two deputies because the Taoiseach “stood by the plan, notwithstanding political pressure.”

Ms Harney recalled how there were “posters in Monaghan up with my picture, saying; “wanted for murder’ because we had taken away the service and effigies of me were burned on bonfires in many parts of the country.”

“I just say that as a sample of when you try to do the right thing, how very often it can be a challenge,” she added, telling delegates that they have to be “determined, focused, be tough, calm and have passion.”

She added later that such criticisms of her during her time in public office had greatly hurt her parents and her husband but that she herself had developed the thick skin necessary to survive in politics.

The former Tánaiste also spoke of the financial collapse, admitting that one of the key mistakes the government had made was in benchmarking the public sector against private sector pay instead of public sector pay in other countries, “because, of course, when there’s a downturn the private sector can make reductions much more easily. It’s much more difficult in a public sector environment.”

She also said the government had accepted the consensus in the country that it would be a ‘soft landing’ and that it probably didn’t listen to outliners giving a different view.

In 2007 she had decided she would not be contesting the election, saying: “Of course the circumstances of the end of that government would be what they were.”

Meanwhile she also spoke of the increasing role played by women in Irish politics, saying she had originally been against quotas – and how Micheal McDowell had once quipped that the PDs needed “a quota for men.”

She praised new senator Lynne Ruane, who she said was an invaluable role model for women in West Tallaght remaining in education.

Looking relaxed and with her hair in a long bob flipped at the ends, Ms Harney humorously commented on her billing at the WXN event as “Reinvention and Reimagination” saying: “ I suppose when you saw reinvention and reimagination….you probably thought you were going to see a size six Mary Harney on the stage with long blonde hair.”

Now enjoying life outside politics, she said that what is most important to her is her privacy, having never had it, having entered politics at the age of 24.

She is working in a number of roles, including a board membership on the Hospice Foundation, she is also a mentor to two young women.

Giving advice to the women present at the event, she said she was ‘not a fan of people who sit on the fence’, adding that  once decisions are made, you stick by them and you make them happen. She said you ‘can’t have the loose canon or the lone ranger approach when you work for an organisation.’

She spoke of Ireland as a leader in the field of science and technology, adding that she is also involved in a European wide organisation called Vital Voices mainly aimed at helping women in developing countries where “women are killed because they are women.”

“Leadership belongs to those who take it – it doesn’t belong to anybody,” she said, adding that education is an imperative, with several studies showing that if a woman is educated one extra year, the family income goes up 10pc.

She said she has seen the difference women make in boardrooms with their different perspectives, giving companies higher profitability and yet “there are so many gaps here in Ireland and around the world where women’s voices are absent”.

How do we end that, she asked, saying: “We end it by ensuring that men are aware of the potential  of including women in decision making.”

“The world is changing and it’s not a case of men versus women, it’s a case of women and men working together.”

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