Sunday 23 October 2016

Greed and ambition are bad for health

Hughie McElvaney and Leo Varadkar are each a part of a Fine Gael that damages us, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

Hugh McElvaney. Photo: Frank McGrath
Hugh McElvaney. Photo: Frank McGrath

For just a while, I thought we'd found a new hero: councillor Hughie McElvaney, star of the RTE Investigates programme. You had to admire his total commitment to unashamedly playing the role of a greedy bastard.

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Another councillor talked around the issue; a third spoke volumes in a wink.

But there was something pure about the hidden camera footage of Hughie McElvaney setting out his terms for doing business. There was a total absence of the pretence that's standard practice in national politics.

We need planning permission, said RTE's fake businesswoman. I'll take sterling, said Hughie.

Not that success was guaranteed. If the purported wind farm didn't get the go-ahead, said Hughie, "I'll be out of the equation". No foal, no fee.

If you succeed, though, said Hughie - and here he did a marvellous little mime, sweeping imaginary cash off the table, filling his pockets, his moves as fluid and expressive as Fred Astaire at his peak.

As the last chunk of imaginary cash slid into a pocket, Hughie leaned forward. "I want loads of money," he said.

This was the barefaced honesty we crave.

Usually, you have to parse every sentence out of a politician's mouth. You have to identify words and phrases that make what they say conditional. You have to check if the words they say actually mean what they seem to mean.

For instance, when a politician says "We have no plans to . . ." it doesn't mean they don't intend to do it. It means they may well do it, but they haven't yet drawn up the plans.

And the only reason they haven't yet drawn up the plans is so they can say with straight faces: "We have no plans to . . ."

Promises are made with fingers crossed, election pledges are brazenly cast aside before the tallymen tot up the first preferences.

And here was Hughie McElvaney, shunning such shabby pretence. Here was Hughie speaking in cool, clear words of truth: "I want loads of money."

Let us compare Hughie with another politician from the Fine Gael stable who was prominent in recent days - Leo Varadkar.

Leo isn't a greedy bastard. He's merely ambitious. Leo was born the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. As he grew to political consciousness, it was in a world dominated by Thatcheresque values.

Deregulation handed the banks over to devotees of turbo-charged capitalism. The rules of the market assumed the status of holy scripture. Self-described "entrepreneurs" strutted and fretted on TV game shows built around a juvenile notion of what constitutes a business.

And, in Leo's youth, it all seemed to work. A whole generation came out of nappies gurgling "I want loads of money", and all around us they flaunted their borrowed wealth.

Eventually, the low tax, debt-based, deregulated market came off the rails. The media blamed the regulators, Brian Cowen, Bertie, bankers and builders.

But it wasn't individual greed or error that crashed whole economies, it was the politics of greed.

The interesting thing about Varadkar is that - while a prisoner of his right-wing political culture - he remained recognisably human. Occasionally, he said things that simply couldn't emerge from the lips of the robo-pols, the mechanical ideologues who dominate the right-wing parties.

Take Fine Gael's Simon Harris, usually referred to as the youngest TD, but in truth a very, very old man, born to regurgitate the received wisdom of his elders. With incomparable fluency, Simon spits out the ideological cliches of his political tribe, each sentence perfectly formed and utterly devoid of any relationship to life as most of us know it.

Simon, an unfortunate and no doubt well-meaning chap, has been irredeemably shaped by the political pod in which he grew to maturity. Varadkar thinks, and his conclusions sometimes rub up against Fine Gael's values.

If the EU is worth anything, Varadkar said last week, it should use "the European Medicines Agency to negotiate on behalf of Europe and not allow a situation where patients are used as pawns and small countries are picked off by companies that turn enormous profits and pay huge salaries to their executives".

Those are not the words of a man who believes with his whole soul in the inviolable primacy of the free market.

How can the same party embrace all three varieties of Fine Gaelism: 1) the fitful thinking of a Varadkar; 2) Simon Harris's robo-pol devotion to the latest restatement of 19th Century free market certainties; and 3) Hughie McElvaney's undiluted ambition to fill his pockets with "loads of money"?


The party promises its disciples that if they cluster together and give loyalty to the leader they can achieve more than they could hope to achieve as individuals.

Leo last week displayed his caring side - he attacked the corporate greed that forces politicians to consider blocking free access to expensive drugs that can save lives.

But that wasn't all Leo spoke of last week.

If he is to survive - let alone prosper - as a national politician Varadkar must demonstrate his ability to control costs. That is the nub of current right-wing politics - deference to the deficit hawks of the European Central Bank. A minister is given a budget. If you're a proper minister, in Fine Gael terms, you don't come back for more.

Last year, Varadkar came back for more. The Minister for Health is faced with a choice - look for more money or take decisions that will hurt some people and kill others.

Last week, Varadkar warned the HSE that it must "live within its budget". The HSE gingerly noted that there's a "funding shortfall", but Varadkar put on his hard face. You have your budget, live with it.

Next year, assuming Varadkar's in the same position after the election - a big assumption - it would seriously damage his political prospects if he went back to the Cabinet looking for more money. He would be seen as soft.

The public health system over which Varadkar presides was historically under-funded. Then, in the Eighties, it was shredded.

It was a period during which large swathes of the well-off were operating tax evasion schemes, from Ansbacher to the phoney offshore racket, with all kinds of schemes in between.

Hundreds of millions of pounds were sucked out of the official economy. One of the ways in which the State bridged the gap was by cutting the public health system. The Fine Gael-led coalition slashed about 900 hospital beds.

Charlie Haughey condemned this, sought a mandate to reverse the cuts, won the election and then cut 6,300 beds.

The health system is still recovering.

Last week, Varadkar gave the HSE a budget that is deliberately €100m less than is needed. This "funding shortfall" is to be bridged in some magical way, and if the HSE can't manage the magic, Varadkar will tough it out.

There will be cuts. Right now, we're being told "we have no plans . . ." for this or that, the usual dodgy rhetoric, but Varadkar has been put on notice. A failure to live within a deliberately under-funded budget will have consequences.

And Varadkar in turn has told the HSE to accept what has been handed down.

Poor Hughie. His heroic individualism didn't last long. He embarrassed the party leaders, so he got the bum's rush. Whining that he was set up, he sounded just like a politician.

In the long run, he will do us far less damage than the caring but politically ambitious Varadkar.

Sunday Independent

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