News John Drennan

Friday 19 September 2014

Poor prognosis for 'Dr Bumble'

The Health Minister continues to insist he is fine but it is not looking good for him, writes John Drennan

Published 27/10/2013 | 01:55

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BLUFF: No amount of bluster can disguise the status of James Reilly's Department of Health as the sick man of Irish politics

THE only piece of advice that can be applied to politicians across all political and ideological divides is the wise observation of the poet Robert Burns that all too often "the best laid plans of mice and men" go astray.

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That certainly is the case when it comes to Budget 2014, for whilst this initially slinked through the chamber as silently as a thin cat creeping down an alley, we, or more accurately Dr James Reilly, are in a changed landscape now.

It should be said the initial Invisible Man status of Budget 2014 was entirely intentional for this is a government that is still merely seeking to survive in the hope that a new politics of optimism might be possible should they get lucky next year.

Initially we were so far out of the post-budgetary gap, 'Dear Leader' Enda even draped himself with Joan Burton's proposals for welfare reform – not that an old fox like Joan would object to the Taoiseach robbing her wardrobe if she and Bertie... our apologies, Enda... can share the same political bedroom.

Then almost inevitably, poor James Reilly, the bete noire of the Government, came bumbling out of the shadows. In doing so, our Health Minister, once again, knocked over so many bins that everyone is now barking at the poor old slinking alley-cat that is Budget 2014.

The dogs would be right to sound the alarms too for, just like the song about the "hole in my bucket, Dear Liza", there is a hole in the health minister's budget.

Sadly, the hole just keeps getting bigger, for whilst it started off on a bright, confident Budget morning at €150m, by the middle of last week we were at a billion and the water was still rising.

The problem was not in any way alleviated by the spectacle of Reilly kicking his Budget around the place with some vigour, for when the minister starts to intimate that things aren't adding up, then you are in trouble.

In fairness, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the Cabinet bete noire. The rough beast of the HSE has been maiming political careers for a decade since Mary Harney became the first political knight to tackle the dragon.

A more accurate assessment of the task is epitomised by the troika horsemen of the apocalypse who are about to retire in a baffled state from their own attempt to sort out the HSE. If the troika, who, by all accounts, are more than relieved to be getting out the door in one piece, were not able to put manners on the HSE, what chance does poor Dr Reilly have?

Those who would condemn Reilly without thought would also do well to ask if, to borrow a phrase, in health the "limits of austerity" have been reached. Such a discourse, alas, is not a feature of the sort of 'I've got mine' school of rough trading that leads up to a Budget but if you cut 10 per cent from the health budget at a time where the population has risen by 8 per cent, then you are reaching the limits of sustainability.

Of course, as is often the case, the minister continued to insist he was fine last week. But though Reilly was waving vigorously, most observers agreed that it looked as though he was drowning.

In particular, the minister's assertions of delight that the Taoiseach and Minister for Public Enterprise would be scrutinising his department's attempts to find the billion euro looked like an elaborate form of double bluff.

But no amount of pleasant bluster can disguise Reilly's department's status as the sick man of Irish politics.

Given that no state or society values their independence more than the civil service mandarin, Reilly is experiencing the political equivalent of that sort of examinership where the accountants and the banks come in the door to check the books and see if you are still solvent. This may not be enough to get him out of his current fix.

The Health Minister's biggest problem, outwardly at least, resides in the court of Brendan Howlin. The bad news here for poor 'Bottler' is that this is a place of neat and tidy souls whose ledgers always balance and whose answers are always right.

Sadly, when it comes to our de facto Finance Minister (if only for cuts) Howlin, like any good teacher, has become increasingly unimpressed by poor Reilly's habitual unpunctuality and the blots, ink stains, crossings out and wrong answers that litter his fiscal exercise book. Though at worst he attracts neutrality from most of the Labour and Fine Gael ministers, the growls emanating from finance about Reilly bode ill. As Ireland approaches its cherished exit from the bail-out, the last thing that department needs is anything that might threaten the 'Paddy is a good boy now' mantra.

A billion euro is real money these days and if Reilly's fuzzy maths falls apart, all those carefully calibrated confidence-building exit strategies will be trampled by the rogue elephant of health.

Both parties will also be looking with some chill at the prospect where the mood music in the local elections will be dominated by weeping grandmothers being turfed out of nursing homes by savage health cuts.

Labour members, in particular, will be wondering if they are being set up to be the electoral fall guys for the blunders of a Fine Gael minister.

Ironically, the greatest danger of all is posed by Reilly's alleged special relationship with Enda, where he is publicly seen to be the Taoiseach's health Svengali.

This, however, is a precarious position to be in for a politician who has no real allies in the party or in a Cabinet of natural sole traders other than the 'Dear Leader'.

The increasingly faltering performance of Reilly has left the Taoiseach looking like a man who bought shares in a bull market only to find when it comes to cashing in, the market is now a bear one.

Too much of Enda's political credit is tied up in his choice of Reilly for him to easily cut the accident-prone minister adrift. But should the struggling minister continue to belch out diesel smoke, his own party, let alone Labour, could yet force Enda to foreclose on his great experiment.

And if the political share-holding that is James Reilly keep on falling, a sole trader like Enda might not need too much nudging on the 'cutting your losses' front.

He is undoubtedly an optimistic soul, but Reilly is edging towards the limits of hope if he thinks there are any lifebelts available should Enda come with a smile on his face and a carving knife in his hand.

Sir Walter Scott once warned about the "tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive". It would be harsh to apply this line to Reilly for he is more of a Falstaffian creature of bluster and confusion as distinct from deceit.

Sadly as he bumbles around, instead he would do well to remember Haughey's observation about how "health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped".

When it comes to the HSE Hammer House of Horror, he might also have observed that health cuts can also hurt the career of the most bumptious health ministers.

For now, the diminishing supporters of Dr Reilly are continuing to issue the age-old plea of "don't shoot the piano player, he's doing his best". Increasingly though, Enda's finger is looking somewhat twitchy.

The bad news in that regard is that Enda's concerns about the state of his Teflon coat rather than anything Reilly does will decide whether there will continue to be a 'doctor in the HSE house'.

Sunday Independent

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