News Comment

Thursday 21 August 2014

Reilly is the latest fall-guy at Health

The Taoiseach and Cabinet have all deserted a minister who was handed a truly impossible job, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Health James Reilly
Minister for Health James Reilly

WHOEVER came up with the phrase 'the life of Reilly' had clearly never heard of the current, though probably not for long, Health Minister.

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Widely tipped to be shoved out of his job at the next reshuffle; universally pilloried for every fault in a health service whose infrastructure is crumbling faster than a sandcastle in an earthquake; seemingly without a political friend left to defend him, even in his own party – James Reilly's position in Cabinet is starting to look like that of a man who drew the short straw when the cannibals ran out of food.

No doubt the Fine Gael man's handling of Health leaves much to be desired, but he's hardly alone in that. With a few notable exceptions, most ministers are not exactly doing such a great job in their respective roles that they can safely deliver lectures on competence to anyone.

At least Reilly has the excuse of having the hardest job, without exception, in government. The phrase 'popular health minister' is an oxymoron. The demands on the department are huge and ever-expanding. Most decisions that have to be taken are unpopular.

Just look at the list of previous holders of the office. Mary Harney's political standing never recovered from the constant and often vicious criticism of her tenure, even though spending on the health service quadrupled during the Celtic Tiger. If a health minister can't even be popular in a time when the budget's expanding, what chance that one could stay out of the firing line when the country is up to its oxters in debt?

More significantly, James Reilly hasn't done any of this on his own. Is he the Taoiseach? Is he the Finance Minister? Is he Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform? No, he's simply the man who took on the job that the others all passed on as if it was a ticking box in a game of pass the parcel and who is now expected to take all the blame for the monumental mess that is the medical card debacle, which every single one of his colleagues had approved in Cabinet.

They sat in the Dail and heard deputies telling the same stories of constituents with cancer having medical cards withdrawn because they were a few shekels over the income threshold. They knew disabled children were being targeted in a blitz on the medical cards.

Now, suddenly, they're edging away from the Health Minister as if he had a contagious disease. Reilly now looks like Vladimir Putin at last week's G8 summit: isolated, alone, ostracised.

He has even received the public backing of Labour's Alex White, the man who singlehandedly and aggressively went out to bat for the Government's medical card policy. If that isn't enough to finish off James Reilly, nothing is.

Labour's Roisin Shortall walked from Cabinet because she couldn't stand over the cuts being imposed by the Coalition, but there wasn't exactly a rush to follow her. But despite the fact that the Constitution is clear that the Cabinet should "meet and act as a collective authority", right now it's more of a collective washing of hands when things go wrong.

Individual ministers hide behind collective Cabinet responsibility as a way of avoiding the rap for their handling of contentious issues, but fail to see that it works both ways and means they cannot therefore distance themselves from the unpopular decisions of their colleagues. Either the slogan 'There Is No Alternative' is right, or it isn't. If there really is no alternative, what has Reilly done wrong? If there is an alternative, why did they stand back and say 'not our problem, guv'?

The Taoiseach is key to all this. If the Cabinet takes a wrong turning, he should sort it out. Instead, Enda Kenny seems to have turned the job of Taoiseach into a sort of quasi-presidential spectacle – flying round the world; making speeches to Congress; taking the credit for every new job created; bagging the top spot at prestigious high-profile public occasions – and then vanishing again when the going gets tough.

At this time of all times, the country needed a 'roll your shirt sleeves up and muck in' kind of Taoiseach, not one who wafts around airily on the fringes of public life, as detached from reality as Gwyneth Paltrow in the midst of one of her more whimsical 'hello trees, hello sky' episodes.

Soon Enda will be back, turning the record player on and off as the Cabinet plays musical chairs and pretending that this is leadership. Basically, James Reilly will be ritually sacrificed in the hope that the political Grim Reaper doesn't come knocking for Enda or Noonan or Howlin instead, with Leo Varadkar, in all probability, shoved forward to be next in the firing line.

Last week, the Finance Minister turned down an opportunity to express confidence in his FG colleague in the Dail. He should be more worried by the even more emphatic refusal of the electorate to express confidence in his own government at the recent polls.

Sunday Independent

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