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Fionnan Sheahan: It's time Coalition put up or shut up over health cuts

Published 04/09/2012 | 17:00

TWENTY-FIVE years on from Fianna Fail's infamous general election slogan, the language has certainly changed but the sentiment is the same.

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A quarter of a century later, of course, health cuts still do hurt the elderly, the sick and those with disabilities.

Following the 1987 General Election, the then Fianna Fail government was forced to embark on a range of savage health cuts and hospital closures.

In order to balance the books and stave off the bankruptcy of the State, the minority government took many nasty decisions.

As a result, the then minister for health, Rory O'Hanlon, was nicknamed 'Dr Death' and his cabinet colleague, minister for finance Ray MacSharry earned the moniker of 'Mac the Knife'.

The wheel has come round again as the present Government is embarking on a range of cuts to the health services.

If coalition backbenchers think the €130m package generating such controversy is bad, wait until they see December's Budget.

Budget 2013 is possibly going to be the worst so far as the figures for cuts and taxes remain the same, but the easy options are gone.

There'll be no low-hanging fruit left, no choices from a Bord Snip report, no menu from a comprehensive review of expenditure, just plain, hard, unpalatable decisions.

The furore over the €130m package of cuts is a microcosm of the debate surrounding the Government's options.

Health Minister James Reilly wound up in a mid-year crisis either because he delivered an unachievable set of estimates last December or he failed to manage an accurate budget in the opening months of the year.

He then had the unenviable task of cutting his budget mid-year with the Croke Park Agreement protecting pay, thereby roping off 70pc of his areas of expenditure.

Instead, he had to identify €130m in health service savings from the remaining budget, in areas that were directly achievable within four months.

No ifs, buts or maybes: the €130m has to be credible and deliverable.

Unfortunately, this does mean direct cuts to health services.

The Labour Party, in particular, has to decide: does it want to protect the Croke Park Agreement and the wages of public servants or frontline services?

The days of being able to do both are over.

Throwing out claims about "alternatives" being available is just cheap.

Notably, none of the critics of the package, in the Labour Party, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail or Sinn Fein have actually come forward with a detailed list of savings to be made between now and the end of the year.

The signal from the Government last night is that the cuts will go ahead, albeit handled sensitively over the coming months.

And to be quite frank, if they're going to cave in every time a few Labour backbenchers have a whinge, they may as well call a halt to this Coalition and go to the people in a general election to elect a Government to actually run the country.

The grave economic position is too serious for the sort of game- playing being engaged in by backbenchers, who are mimicking their predecessors in previous administrations.

Dr Reilly is correct on the economics -- but wrong on the politics.

The reason for the lack of confidence in his abilities comes from his innate inability to bring colleagues along with him.

His communication inadequacies are well documented and he now has cabinet ministers scratching their heads in frustration at his motivation.

Although it is ludicrous of the Labour Party to claim complete ignorance of the cuts being in the pipeline, Dr Reilly ought to have ensured he had all the bases covered.

Before announcing the package, it was not unreasonable to expect he would at the very least have run the final list with all its details by senior ministers to get their agreement.

Without that, he left himself open to accusations of not informing colleagues and setting himself up as the bogeyman to blame for the cuts being required.

He has already encountered hostility over his failure to show adequate respect to counterparts and it is to his cost.

Dr Reilly is burning political capital he doesn't have in the bank and making his longer-term task all the more difficult and leaves major doubts over his ability to do the job.

The central protagonists in the stoking up of the controversy have not covered themselves in glory.

After lambasting the health cuts, calling for a review by the Taoiseach, and warning about the prospect of a general election, Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney was expressing full confidence in the Health Minister.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin criticising a Health Minister for having to bring in cuts in services is laughable.

Mr Martin ought to check his diaries from a decade ago to see how he was preoccupied for several summers with battles over spending over-runs in the Department of Health.

Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin has failed to step up to the plate and explain his department's level of involvement in the drafting of the list of cuts.

Given his own refusal to tackle the public sector unions on the "historic" allowances paid in the public sector, he's hardly in a position to stand in judgment on a minister cutting the pay in his area.

A reduction in consultants' pay can deliver savings, but negotiations on a new contract are not going to be completed in a mere four months.

Within the Coalition, be it minister or backbencher, the time has come to put up or shut up.

Being in government isn't supposed to be easy and this Coalition is facing hard times ahead.

Irish Independent

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