Lise Hand: In a year of splits, cuts and bruised egos, hospitals inevitably made the headlines
Published 02/01/2013 | 05:00
THERE'S little doubt that the denizens of the Dail and Seanad were more than happy to head off for a Christmas break after a torrid year in which our politicians were hit with a veritable ABC of controversies – from abortion to bank debt to cuts.
For some members of the Oireachtas it was a particularly torrid year, and nobody will be happier to see the end of 2012 than Health Minister James Reilly. The year was only a few weeks old when Dr Reilly admitted that budget cuts would affect frontline services; this was followed in February by the shock decision by An Bord Pleanala to refuse permission for the National Children's Hospital on the Mater site (after months of pressure and debate, in November Dr Reilly eventually unveiled St James's Hospital as the new location).
In July Dr Reilly appeared in 'Stubbs' Gazette' as owing a debt of €1.9m along with four others arising from a High Court judgment on the group's purchase of a nursing-home in Carrick-on-Suir.
More disaster struck in the summer when it was revealed that the HSE had a projected massive budget overrun of almost €400m, prompting the opposition to slap down a no-confidence motion in him when the Dail resumed in September.
Then Dr Reilly lost a junior minister, Labour's Roisin Shortall, who resigned at the end of September after a protracted wrangle over the criteria he used for expanding the list of 20 sites for proposed primary care centres to 35 (including one in Balbriggan in his own constituency). The Dublin North TD explained – to the bemusement of the nation – that there was a "logistical logarithmic progression" behind his selection process.
In November Dr Reilly became embroiled in that most fraught of issues – abortion – following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital, and ended the year in a storm of controversy over the Government's decision to introduce new abortion legislation, which should ensure that Dr Reilly has a torrid 2013 in store also.
Another politician who endured his own annus horribilis was Independent TD Mick Wallace.
In June it was revealed that the Wexford TD had made a settlement of over €2.1m with the Revenue for an under-payment of VAT relating to his company, M&J Wallace Ltd.
He then landed himself in further hot water in October when he claimed during a radio interview that he had once threatened to hire a hitman to recover a debt. This sparked uproar in the Dail's Technical Group, leading to his temporary departure from their number and his close friend Clare Daly's departure from the Socialist Party in support, followed by a chilly reception from some colleagues when he decided to return to the fold.
The Dail's Technical Group may be small, but they're feisty and rarely out of the news. Luke 'Ming' Flanagan tangled with the Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett on several occasions, both inside the chamber and outside it. In July Ming subjected the Ceann Comhairle to a lengthy haranguing in the Dail corridor after an argument about a vote, repeatedly calling him "a disgrace", and earlier this month Sean Barrett briefly suspended Dail business when the Independent TD accused him of making personal comments about his dress sense (or lack thereof), complaining, "my children are being teased".
Alongside the shenanigans of Mick and Ming, People Before Profit TD Joan Collins also sparked the Ceann Comhairle's ire when she used parliamentary privilege recently to name rugby ace Ronan O'Gara and journalist Paul Williams for having driving penalty points cancelled by the gardai.
But it wasn't just the Technical Group who had the Ceann Comhairle reaching for the Rennies. A few Sinn Fein deputies had him pointing towards the exit: in March Pearse Doherty was ejected over remarks about the appointment of a senior civil servant; and in December Padraig MacLochlainn held up Dail business when he spent 45 minutes refusing to leave the chamber after accusing the Ceann Comhairle of being unfair to the opposition deputies. Also in the same week, the Dail was suspended following a furious row between Gerry Adams and the Taoiseach, when the Sinn Fein leader demanded (unsuccessfully) that Enda Kenny withdraw his remark about the disappearance of Belfast woman Jean McConville.
But 2012 was also the year which saw Fianna Fail keep the head, apart from one dust-up between party leader Micheal Martin and his deputy Eamon O Cuiv when the Galway rebel defied the party line on the fiscal treaty referendum and spent the subsequent four months as its sole backbencher.
And no one was more surprised than Fianna Fail when successive polls towards the end of the year showed them on the rise, with Micheal rated the most popular leader in one November poll.
The Labour Party, by contrast, ended the year in some disarray, with two prominent members losing both the head and the party whip. Tensions arose between Labour and Fine Gael over both budget cuts and over how the Government should implement the recommendations of the expert group report on abortion.
September saw the departure of junior health minister, Dublin North West's Roisin Shortall, and then in December the party's chairman, Galway East TD Colm Keaveney, dramatically voted against the Social Welfare Bill and thereby walked the party plank. A week later Labour senator James Heffernan did likewise and also jumped overboard.
N OR would the political year be complete without a 'Gate' brouhaha or two. The first came courtesy of Sinn Fein's Aengus 'Wolfe Toner' O Snodaigh, when it was revealed in February that he had used up to €50,000 worth of printer ink cartridges over a two-year period – the equivalent of over three million printed pages. The Dublin South-Central TD tried to explain 'Inkgate' by declaring himself to be "the most prolific leafleter in the country within the party".
And then there was 'Flowerpot Gate' in June when a chaotic media scrum with the Taoiseach caused him to stumble against a large flowerpot. Ridiculously, his lily-livered handlers tried to point the finger of blame at TV3's Ursula Halligan, using the word "assault" to her bosses. In fact, nobody came in contact at all with Enda, and his spin-doctors were left rosy-faced.
But 2012 came to a sad end. On December 21 the tragic death of junior minister for agriculture, Shane McEntee, was announced. Fine Gael's Meath East TD took his own life after several weeks of sustained pressure, particularly from anonymous online sources, over budget cuts. His graveside eulogy was delivered by the Taoiseach on Christmas Eve.