Friday 21 October 2016

This election is about money in pockets - health is not the big issue

Published 17/12/2015 | 02:30

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Here is a brutal reality about the upcoming election. Unless you, or someone close to you, is ill right now, and suffering due to health service shortcomings, it will not be a deciding factor in the destination of your vote.

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It's a harsh thing to say, especially if you are ill and denied necessary service. But it is true for all that.

We found out as much rather graphically all of three elections ago. It was 2002, and to paraphrase Bertie Ahern's own words a few years later, "the boom times were getting even boomier".

Michael Noonan's Fine Gael lost 23 TDs trying to fight a general election in large part on quality of life issues, including a poor health service. Bertie's Fianna Fáil, with lavish tax cuts and major child benefit payments garnished with arrears, romped home.

It was the first time the Irish voter voted out the opposition. And cash had everything to do with it.

True, voters can be very hard to convince - until you ply them with some hard cash upfront. Enda Kenny's likely choice of February for the election is based on allowing welfare increases and tax cuts time to "wash through".

No, we are not trying to say health is irrelevant. If there is a "big health war" on, such as an impending nurses' strike, health could be very much centre stage.

But few if any governments would be foolhardy enough to go into an election campaign under such circumstances. What we are trying to say, without giving undue offence, is that there is an 'acceptable level of failure in the health services'.

And once things are kept within that margin of error, health is very unlikely to harm a government questing re-election.

It is the essentially depressing thing at the heart of the malaise in the Irish health services. There is a certain feeling that many of its key problems cannot be resolved - just managed.

It is always important for a sector which employs 100,000 people to say that many good things happen within it every day of the week. But its problems with the public hospital sector generally, and A&E in particular, are not encouraging.

We say all this also on the day after the 2016 health services plan was published, outlining how the €13bn in taxpayers' money will be spent next year.

In the Dáil yesterday, Mr Kenny was rattling out the statistics and giving socks to the "millions and billions". The Taoiseach was busy batting away the criticisms of Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams.

Mr Kenny never forgets to recall that Mr Martin was himself a health minister for four years, and faced many of the same difficulties without much success, despite the availability of government cash. Almost five years after this Government took office that old cant has become tiresome.

The figures behind this year's spending plan are closer to reality than the crazy underestimating of previous years. But the whole thing is pitched to be within that margin of error so as not to drag in political harm.


Irish Independent

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