THERE are certain states about which any allegation is just about believable. If Reuters was to report that North Korea had embarked upon a plan to tow icebergs from the North Pole to Antarctica, one would nod one's head and declare: sounds like North Korea all right. If we reported that Robert Mugabe had announced that he was to annexe Chile and Tibet, no one would doubt he'd said such things. There is a third state in this world, about which any assertion, no matter how absurd, is believable: the HSE.
Just how many readers doubted Saturday's report about the HSE moving a chef, at €46,000 a year, from a defunct unit to a new children's unit in which the kitchen did not have the facilities for him to cook hot food and so the HSE (us, actually) had also paid out another €155,000 to a local bar for food for patients? Answer: absolutely none. Par for the course, would have been the consensus.
Health in Ireland is the strange meridian where life's impossibles come together, where the equator meets the two poles, she-imams say Mass, and Jewish zealots gorge on spam. Is Ireland the only country in Europe to have named a hospital after a man who gave a gun to his 14-year old son, with the instruction to go out and kill his fellow countrymen? Certainly, Ireland is the only country anywhere to have announced that all pensioners could have free flu jabs, at €30 a go, which is what GPs have been charging per patient. To put that "free" 10-second €30 jab in perspective, a three-course dinner with a glass of wine in the legendary Ballymore Inn costs only €22. Two jabs, therefore, nearly equals dinner plus wine for three.
Now one shouldn't get too sentimental about the health system of yesteryear, when The Little Sisters of the Crown of Thorns or The Holy Sisters of Eternal Torment were in charge, and when every hospital ward had a picture of the Sacred Heart, with compulsory public Mass on Sundays. For patients were all presumed to be Catholic – which indeed was virtually government policy, after the Free State informally agreed with the mitred lads in Drumcondra that, with the exception of the Border counties and Dun Laoghaire, all dispensary doctors in Ireland should be Catholics.
In those days, hospitals were run by nursing-order matrons who were a terrifying cross between Attila the Nun and Olivia Cromwell. The consequence was that germs were rarer in hospitals than sabre-toothed ostriches, as (admittedly) underpaid, wizened and chilblained skivvies grimly toiled on their gnarled hands and knobbly knees from before dawn's early light, sluicing everything down with eusol. And that is another reminder of bygone values: eusol was a germicide partly named in honour of its institutional creator – E-dinburgh U-niversity SOLution. Since then, Scotland has invented virtually nothing save the deep-fried Mars Bar and foetal obesity.
These hospital matrons were, of course, also "Mothers Superior" – though actually, they were about as maternal as a boatswain plying a cat o' nine tails. And when they prowled the hospital wings, the cat trailing bloodily along the freshly scrubbed floor behind them, their fierce, feral glares would cause involuntary urethral spurts amongst their wretched underlings, the nursing sisters. The lesson is: fear works.
Nowadays, however, as hospitals have become great jobs-farms dominated by fearless and arrogant unions, the statistics are thoroughly Zimbabwean: on average, nearly 10pc of the HSE workforce are on sick leave every single day, (though Monday is when "illness" peaks, at nearly 20pc of the workforce in some hospitals) and time off for having children has really become eternity leave. A male patient can be admitted to an HSE hospital suffering from sore tonsils, and within a week he has contracted fallopian dry-rot, ovarian distemper and uterine rabies, and both his feet have been amputated. But at least, with luck, he'll still have his sore tonsils.
There is a cure for all this: privatise the lot. This State is no more capable of running hospitals than an airline. (An Aer Lingus air hostess's drinks' cabinet was always full of scores of baby bottles of spirits that they were "allowed" to take home: hence the £220 return fare to London in the 1980s).
I am perfectly serious in what follows: only a Michael O'Leary is capable of making our health service work. But this won't happen, because our political class is ideologically committed to the utter fiction that it can make sick people well again. This is a Messiah-delusion, a North Korean or Zimbabwean conceit that produces four-year waiting lists and corridor-trolleys laden with the groaning and the bewildered.
The very idea of the State surrendering its power, its clientelist patronage and its political influence, over the largest employer in the land is anathema to the politburo in Leinster House. That's why there's more chance of the viceroy returning to the Park than there is of an O'Leary-run Ryancare displacing the dysfunctional and positively Harrarean HSE. The motto of our political classes really should be: Better Sick Than Mick.