The anti-Midas doctor delivers yet another fiasco
ANY Fine Gael activist can recite by heart the four main reasons why their party got a big local election kicking.
Three of them were: the fumbled presentation around water charges; ongoing fears about local property tax; and the serial bungling of garda and justice controversies, topped off by that remarkable eve-of-election behaviour by former minister Alan Shatter about his ministerial pay-off.
But FG loyalists reserve special anger about problem number four: the absolute mess made of the review and withdrawal of discretionary medical cards. Part of the anger here is caused by the small numbers of people involved, the callous behaviour attributed to some health administrators and the mention of the name of Health Minister James Reilly.
By the Health Department's own count on May 1, there were only 50,000 people in the country in possession of such discretionary cards. We are left to guess how many were in fact in danger of losing them. But it is unlikely to be more than several thousand people in total – one reliable estimate puts the number at under 10,000 people.
Leaving aside all humanitarianism, a hardened politico would say that a heck of a lot of credibility and goodwill has been burned up for very little potential gain. The Government only very belatedly got this message, as the very existence of any problem was denied again and again for almost a year by everyone from the Taoiseach down.
Backbenchers at Leinster House from all parties spoke in the past few months about the raw fear generated by review letters received by relatives of seriously ill people.
Four days before local and European election polling, Finance Minister Michael Noonan announced there would be a full review of the matter after those elections. In a characteristic foray into political frankness, Mr Noonan said any belated action would be regarded as an "election gimmick".
Labour was equally involved in this debacle and it was also among the reasons why the party suffered proportionately much more at the polls. The Junior Health Minister, now a candidate for the Labour leadership, Alex White, was a frequent defender of the controversial review of these discretionary medical cards and often emphasised that cards were primarily issued on grounds of income rather the extent of illness suffered.
Up to yesterday, even this U-turn appeared in doubt as HSE officials said there was no legal basis for what the Government was now signalling. But Mr Noonan was emphatic – the review will be abandoned and discretionary medical cards will be restored. If special legislation was needed, it would be provided.
It's amazing what an election kicking can do – and at some speed.