IN April 2012, the Irish Medical Organisation held its annual conference in Killarney. Addressing members, the incoming president Dr Paul McKeown made the following remarks about his chief executive: "I want to particularly single out George McNeice; I have found George to be a very wise and able negotiator and a very decent human being. His quiet strength continuously inspires me."
Eight months after this speech, it emerged that Mr McNeice was in receipt of a salary package worth almost €500,000 per annum. These figures had never been revealed to IMO members who were funding this largesse. Worse was to follow as it became clear the chief executive also had a contractual pension agreement in place reported to be worth an incredible €25m. (Following talks, this was subsequently reduced to a mere €9.7m).
The IMO president, who previously found the CEO "inspiring", now informed doctors of his "fury" at this appalling situation. The blame was quickly cast in the direction of a former president of the organisation, who is now deceased and therefore not in a position to defend himself. Members are apparently expected to believe that all subsequent IMO leaders bear no responsibility whatsoever for this financial catastrophe.
Understandably, many doctors are not buying this. Since the news broke, calls have emerged for a full independent inquiry into the governance of the IMO. I find it hard to accept that not a single senior elected officer of the organisation over the last decade was aware of the salary and pension entitlements of their own chief executive, and thus was not in a position to share this information with members.
However, as a GP who has been one of the few critics of the IMO and its policies in the medical press, I am not entirely surprised by the emergence of this financial scandal.
I have long believed that, on certain issues, those charged with representing Irish doctors have let our profession down. For example, I feel the apparent reluctance of the IMO to swiftly, publicly and unequivocally condemn the government of Bahrain for the illegal detention and torture of Irish trained doctors in 2011-12 brought shame upon us all.
Furthermore, there have also been broader, more subtle failings over the past few years.
Traditionally, medical practitioners were once seen as the lead public advocates for patients in this State. In recent times that role has largely been taken over by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, under the admirable leadership of Liam Doran.
As a result, it has been the INMO, and not the IMO, which has consistently highlighted the incompetence of the HSE and the ongoing shambles that is our acute hospital system. It was the nurses who brilliantly introduced the 'trolley count' to public discourse – a daily figure that gives us a direct insight into the extent of patient suffering.
Meanwhile, those doctors who dared to question the IMO's 'softly softly' public approach towards our dysfunctional health system found it difficult to make their voices heard. Regrettably, the medical profession has always been reluctant to tolerate any criticism of its leaders, and some established colleagues have been all too eager to put manners on any impertinent young pup who asked difficult questions.
Overall, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the enormous financial package granted to George McNeice would never have been allowed to go publicly unchallenged for so long were it not for this hierarchical culture of obsequiousness and undue deference.
In my opinion, the IMO has now lost all credibility. It has failed doctors, it has failed patients and ultimately it has failed our nation.
IT is time for a new organisation to be formed, one that is capable of acting as a public advocate for patients as well as medical professionals. Such a union should allow open and honest debate among all its members, and must never shy away from criticising the Government or the HSE.
Most importantly of all, this must be an organisation which will reassure the sick and vulnerable in this country that there are many good, honourable doctors out there who are genuinely on their side.
If a more effective medical association eventually emerges from this fiasco, then the IMO financial scandal may well have been a blessing in disguise. We can only hope.
Ruairi Hanley is a GP