News Brendan O’Connor

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Labour abandoned not only Roisin, but its core values and voters

Pat Rabbitte and Alex White are washing their hands of the medical card mess and election disaster

Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30

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Roisin Shortall. Photo: Tom Burke

Alex White's bid to lead the Labour Party is looking increasingly stalled. Indeed, not only does it seem as if this competition might finally halt Alex's so-called "rise without trace" in the Labour party, there is now talk that this leadership bid might actually be a huge setback for Alex's career.

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White is emerging from all this almost as a figure of fun. He is certainly looking like a man of straw. It's hard to say what he is actually about, apart from a wealth tax that is not government policy and a vague ambition to go into government with Sinn Fein if that's what he needs to do to be in government. Unfortunately for Alex, if you asked most people what he's about, people would struggle a bit before saying that he is a barrister with a nice coif, well groomed, Southside.

When you do look for the substance, things don't get much better. Ask people what Alex has done and they will mention medical cards. Beyond that they might struggle. Then they might remember that he is also chief sponsor of the free-GP-care-for-under-sixes plan, which has now been shelved for the time being. In other words, Alex is directly linked to two of the biggest messes this Government has presided over. He has, in the process, stopped in its tracks the Government's Big Idea of healthcare reform.

Indeed, you could even argue that it is Alex's fault that Labour needs to find a new leader in the first place, given that the medical card debacle was one of the main reasons the Labour party, and indeed the Government, did so badly in the elections. To paraphrase Homer Simpson's maxim about alcohol, it seems that Alex White is the cause of, and the solution to, all of Labour's problems.

Funnily enough, Joan Burton, who hadn't a huge amount to do with the medical cards issue, came on the Saturday Night Show at the beginning of the Labour leadership race and accepted collective cabinet responsibility for the pain and suffering caused – and actually apologised. Alex, who was directly responsible for the matter, has been much less forthcoming about putting his hands up and accepting responsibility. And then, on Thursday, there was an extraordinary incident in the Dail that demonstrated why Alex might not feel he is responsible for the medical cards disaster. Because apparently it's not the fault of anyone in the Government.

First a refresher on some background. Roisin Shortall, as we are all aware, left her position as a Junior Minister in the Department of Health, and the Labour Party, on an issue of principle. She walked because she thought that her minister, James Reilly, had attempted to divert medical resources from where they were needed and she felt that if Labour stands for anything it is that resources should go to those who need them most. Roisin's leadership did not share her qualms or principals and they hung her out to dry and continued on with business as usual, the business of staying in Government.

As we know, no one is allowed to walk away from the Labour Party or express principles, without having the piss taken out of them for not being more pragmatic. In Labour, having principles is better known, in Pat Rabbitte's pithy phrase, as pirouetting on the plinth. Those who walk from Labour because they think something is wrong are portrayed as self-indulgent drama queens, "parading their consciences", while lacking the pragmatic mettle to stay in government at all costs. Colm Keaveney, you will recall, was the original pirouetter on the plinth, when he walked away from Labour, disgusted at cuts to citizens with special needs.

So anyway, Thursday, and they are discussing the Housing Assistance Payment in the Dail. And Roisin Shortall attempts to get involved in the discussion. And Pat Rabbitte jumps in, telling her she might be better to stay out of it. "I do not think Deputy Shortall should enter this," he says. "Her decision on the centralisation of medical cards has caused enough difficulties in this country."

Wow, even by Rabbitte's increasingly cranky and pissy standards that was a bit harsh. So basically, Pat Rabbitte was trying to blame the medical cards issue on Roisin Shortall, who left the Department of Health nearly two years ago, in September 2012. Now in fairness, Roisin Shortall was responsible for deciding that the issuing of discretionary medical cards should be centralised because of wildly varying standards being applied all over the country and wide variations in the numbers getting them. This has generally been agreed to be a good idea, leading to a fairer system for everyone. The Taoiseach reiterated this during the week.

The review and withdrawal of discretionary medical cards to people whom we now accept deserved to have them was not

decided by Roisin Shortall. Neither was Shortall anywhere near power during the year in which this issue became, more and more, a source of public outrage. It was not Shortall who demonstrated a tin ear as the story grew legs. It was not Shortall who gambled that the electorate was not that compassionate that they would care about a few sick or disabled children. It was not Shortall who lost Labour all those votes.

If anything, Labour should have listened to Shortall two years ago. Because she was the canary in the coalmine. If Shortall was willing to walk away from a nice government job over Labour's abandonment of its core values, then of course, Labour voters, who had much less invested in the whole thing, were going to walk too. But Roisin was ignored and abandoned. As indeed were the electorate themselves when they walked from Labour. I heard Pat Rabbitte more than once on the radio as the results came through that weekend being cranky and impatient with the electorate. They just didn't get it, was his basic vibe. They were ungrateful and emotional.

Who knows why Rabbitte seemed to try and dump the medical cards issue on Shortall by apparently trying to collate her decision to centralise the discretionary medical cards process with the disastrous decision to take cards from incredibly vulnerable people?

You could speculate that it is a last gasp attempt to divert flak from Alex, and to put Alex back in the race. And you could speculate too that if Alex is back in the race, not only does that help Alex's chance of having a seat in Cabinet after all this is over, it also helps Pat's chance of having one, because Joan has already pretty much committed, if she wins the leadership, to getting rid of Rabbitte and the rest of the old guard from the cabinet.

Perhaps then it was a last snarl from a dog who's had his day, and who has clearly learnt nothing in the last while about the fact that, maybe, just maybe, the pirouetters were right. And maybe, just maybe, the people have principles and a conscience too, and they expected the same of the Labour Party.

Sunday Independent

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