Friday 21 October 2016

Colum Kenny: Savita tragedy has Coalition in a panic

Government's reaction highlights the gap between power and public accountability

Published 25/11/2012 | 05:00

It wouldn't happen to a Mayoman. What Irish Taoiseach would publicly address a recently bereaved constituent or put the kind of pressure on "a decent man" that Enda Kenny directed at Praveen Halappanavar last week?

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Kenny's Dail appeal hit the wrong note. It reflected panic in Government at what the death of Savita Halappanavar has revealed, and at what the coverage of her death internationally is doing to Ireland's battered image in the world.

For a while last week, Mr Halappanavar might have been forgiven for thinking that he had done something wrong. Wherever he got the idea that the Irish State is capable of conducting a short, sharp, public investigation into a woman's death, he was soon disabused of his fantasy.

Following Kenny came RTE's Sean O'Rourke. Recognising the reality of Irish public life, O'Rourke seemed to be trying to push the bereaved victim's solicitor into a compromise live on radio. It sounded like a well-intentioned "half a loaf is better than none" strategy. Any Irish public inquiry or court case could take years.

A hard-hitting journalist, O'Rourke's approach reflected the low expectations of Irish citizens when it comes to cases such as this. Sure, how could we be having public inquiries that actually work well?

But it was also on RTE that the Government's response to this scandal was finally blown apart. When Prime Time finally got to grips with the story a full week late, it broadcast an in-depth interview with Mr Halappanavar that was devastating precisely because he seems so ordinary and simple.

His warm sentiments for the Irish and his references to praying to God during the crisis, sank any effort to frame him as a pushy outsider. Mr Halappanavar may be from India but he spoke for many Irish citizens when he voiced his distrust of Irish institutions.

If the inclusion of three doctors from Galway University Hospital on the original private inquiry team was not meant to ensure that the institution where Savita Halappanavar died was spared as many blushes as possible, it was certainly politically inept – and offensive to Praveen Halappanavar.

The best political outcome for the Government of any HIQA, HSE or Coroner's report would be for a consultant at Galway to be found at fault.

Anti-abortion groups last week insisted that the Catholic Church had long taught that a doctor may terminate a baby's life in cases such as that of Savita Halappanavar, implying that staff at the hospital got it wrong and need no new law.

But two years ago a nun on a Catholic hospital panel that approved a direct abortion in the USA was deemed to have excommunicated herself. The mother was 11 weeks pregnant and seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension. Sister Margaret McBride was deemed to have broken rules of the US bishops' that state: "Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion."

For decades, the Irish medical profession has warned that a doctor deciding to terminate could end up in trouble because of the lack of clear statutory guidelines. It's ironic that a doctor who decided NOT to carry out an abortion amid such legal confusion may now get blamed.

The former master of the National Maternity Hospital

shares the Government's aversion to a full-scale public inquiry. He said last week that "if it is a public inquiry it will descend into a bit of a circus because there will be misinterpretations of evidence given, which will be bandied about in the media".

That is the trouble with things being made public. People "misinterpret" them. And the pesky media bandy it all about before those in power can spin a sensible synopsis of events. But how many pregnant women have died and been buried quietly because the media never learnt the facts?

The State's arguments against a full public inquiry depend on its own failure to manage inquiries well during the past two decades. The administrative and financial shambles of tribunals should have been addressed long ago by legal reforms and greatly reduced legal costs, not simply by the provision of alternative Commissions of Investigation that are held in private.

Concern for the constitutional rights of those who appeared before tribunals in recent years has been in stark contrast to the State's abdication of responsibility in relation to the constitutional rights of pregnant women whose lives are at risk. There is too much law and not enough justice in Ireland.

Savita Halappanavar's death has devastated her family and set the cat among the Coalition partners. But it has also highlighted again the gap between power and public accountability in Ireland, and the continuing failure to introduce meaningful reforms that allow rapid and appropriate responses to crises. This is a recipe for further trouble.

Sunday Independent

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