Sunday 28 August 2016

Varadkar uses politics' wicked month to ease into 'Angola'

Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30

Mary O'Rourke
Mary O'Rourke

August is a wicked month. So wrote Edna O'Brien back in 1965 and her words still ring true today.

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For many politicians, August is the month to meet with their families and go off to the beach.

We had a clear example this week of a politician who thinks differently.

Dr Leo Varadkar, the new Minister for Health, decided to use the lacuna created by the wicked, lazy early days of August to lay out his stall and ideas for the health portfolio.

Firstly, we had the self-penned piece in the Irish Independent. This was followed by a 45-minute interview conducted by Keelin Shanley on RTE One.

It caught my ear and I settled down to listen.

The first item Leo dealt with was the burial of universal health insurance (UHI).

Now of course he will say that he didn't really bury it, he just put it off to a future date.

To my mind, we will not hear very much again about UHI.

It is already turning sour in Germany and in the Netherlands where it had been hailed as the saviour of the nation's ills. Leo told Keelin Shanley that he had been speaking to the health insurance companies to see if they can work out some way in which the escalating costs of private health insurance can be curtailed.

That would sound a sensible path to be following.

The Minister then gave considerable time to giving everyone his ideas on universal primary health care up to age seven and over 70s, etc., and his wish to concentrate on that aspect of health.

Again, sensible and sound if he can work his way through the labyrinth of the politics of the medical fraternity to achieve that aim.

He made clear what finances he will be seeking for the health services and will not be fobbed off by unrealistic, fanciful budgetary sums.

He also made it clear he will be meeting Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin as cabinet equals not as a supplicant minister.

The new Minister for Health could reflect on the favourable publicity which followed his media blitz.

Every news bulletin for the day was occupied with what he had said and what it meant.

So, all in all, he would reflect a job well done.

Years ago, I was Minister for Health for just three months.

In November of 1991 Charlie Haughey appointed me Minister for Health following almost five years in the Department of Education.

I had very much enjoyed being Minister for Education coming, as I did, from an education background. It is helpful to know the lingo and something about the workings of the subject matter to which you are being appointed.

Apart from everyday knowledge of health matters, I went to the 
job with great hopes of working hard and hopefully making a shape at it.

I was determined to learn all I could about health and would go back to my apartment at night loaded with files to study, to read through and to try to understand.

I quickly realised there were a few issues in which I could make a difference and I attended to those quite immediately.

Matters like the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, where the former Eastern Health Board was not giving them - in my view - decent funding.

I got considerable funding for them. I have always admired and retained a great interest in what the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre does.

I remember tackling the issue of Aids, the fear of which was sweeping the world, Europe and Ireland and a sort of a mantra by people, 'let's not talk about it because it has to do with sex'.

We worked on a good loud, shouty campaign when I was Minister on that issue and I was glad, in time, to see the threat subside.

I got a decent health budget and was looking forward to a productive time in Hawkins House.

However political matters decreed otherwise. pCharlie was toppled, Albert came in and Dr John O'Connell duly got his reward at being allocated the Department of Health.

Eight Ministers and ten Ministers of State were sacked on the one day - the Valentine's Day Massacre, as it came to be known.

From a distance we can laugh at it, but it was some bravura performance.

No such fate awaits this Minister for Health.

I feel he will concentrate on getting bothersome issues right - some big, some small.

Above all, having laid out his credentials, he will now concentrate on preparations for his budget.

He will also be easing the fears of an early demolition of the Health Services Executive.

It was former Taoiseach Brian Cowen who christened the Department of Health 'Angola'.

I wasn't left there long enough 
to really judge the politics of it all but I do know that I liked my time there.

I sense that Dr Leo Varadkar has a steady touch and he will not be easily put off whatever he wants to tackle.

I wish him well - may the road rise with him!

Irish Independent

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