Wednesday 24 January 2018

Health cuts will kill babies, Labour chief tells ministers

Warning adds further pressure to party as ministers acknowledge 'Labour is in trouble'

BARRY DUGGAN and DANIEL McCONNELL EXCLUSIVE

A senior figure in the Labour Party has written to two Government ministers to warn that the "safety of mothers and babies" has been "threatened" by "mindlessly indiscriminate" health cuts, the Sunday Independent can reveal.



The disclosure will add to the pressure on Labour this weekend after the fiscal treaty referendum result showed that three Dublin constituencies with two sitting Labour TDs voted No, including the constituency of Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte.

Labour is also under fire from within after a series of opinion polls has shown support for the party to have almost halved since it came to power after the general election in February 2011.

If a general election was held now, Labour could be expected to lose up to 17 seats, effectively wiping out all of the gains made by the party at a time when the country turned its back on Fianna Fail.

However, it is now Labour which is in disarray with elected members at all levels voicing concern about the seriously damaging effects of being in Government.

A poor showing in four national opinion polls in the last 10 days has convinced many in Labour that they are paying too high a price for their role as the junior partner in Government.

The belief is that core support is being allowed drift away to an aggressive Sinn Fein, which is capitalising on the fact that Fianna Fail has practically ceded it the role of opposition leader.

The Sunday Independent has spoken to more than 20 TDs, senators and councillors -- including four of the five Labour ministers at Cabinet -- and it emerged that there is grave concern over their slide in the polls.

Concern will be heightened this weekend by the intervention of Dr Gerry Burke, a consultant obstetrician, who has said that proposed a new hospital management system in the mid-west region "amounts to rampant managerialism".

The region already has the highest infant mortality rate in the country -- 5.1 per 1,000 -- almost twice that of Dublin, according to a report published by the Central Statistics Office last week.

"It is becoming obvious that what is intended is a sort of mini puppet-government for the hospitals," Dr Burke said in an email to all TDs and senators in the area last week, including Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and Minister of State in the Department of Health Jan O'Sullivan.

This is the second time that Dr Burke, a highly respected figure who is also the chairman of the Labour Party in Limerick city, has highlighted this issue.

This time, however, he has gone further in his criticisms -- a move which will add to the pressure on Labour to dramatically improve performance or face electoral catastrophe.

In an email last Thursday, Dr Burke criticised what he called a "hierarchically authoritarian structure" proposed for the region, as presented in a discussion paper last week.

The Department of Health's plan for the mid-west's acute public hospitals is to establish a 'trust', an idea that seems to have derived from a similar system in Britain's NHS.

"To say that what was presented was disappointing would be a gross understatement," Dr Burke wrote.

"In the case of the maternity hospital, it is largely the same ineffective, arms-length management team that was responsible for the introduction last summer of the mindlessly indiscriminate cuts that threatened the safety of mothers and babies that will prevail."

Yesterday, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said he also was concerned about Labour's drop in poll ratings, but said that fixing a bankrupt country was a "messy business which will take time".

Mr Quinn added: "Perhaps we did create an impression in opposition that if we changed government the country would rapidly recover. If we have failed to communicate those achievements, then it is an indictment on us all.

"The poor polls do reflect an anger among the public. The measures we are taking are difficult but necessary to fix this bankrupt country."

On foot of the poor polls and the referendum result --seen by many as another blow to Labour -- party leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore has adopted a new strategy saying it is now "open war" between his party and Sinn Fein.

Acknowledging the concerns expressed by party members, Mr Gilmore said he and his party "have to work harder" in being effective in government and his strategy to stop the rot is to declare war on Sinn Fein, who he has accused of being "lying hypocrites".

He told the Sunday Independent: "Sinn Fein has thrown down the gauntlet and we will meet that challenge head on. It is a political battle we intend winning, but they have targeted the Labour Party with a series of opportunistic lies and brazen hypocrisy."

Despite the grave concern expressed by Labour TDs, senators and MEPs, there appeared to be very little appetite among party members for changing the leadership of the party, as speculated in some media reports. However, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton -- who is most linked with a possible heave -- this weekend gave what appeared to be a qualified endorsement to Mr Gilmore.

"The Labour Party has a leader in Eamon Gilmore and Eamon Gilmore will lead the Labour Party for the foreseeable future," she said.

"We have a job of work to do on behalf of the people of Ireland. It would be very wrong to allow itself to be distracted by an agenda that stops it doing that," she added.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin said he was not interested in "navel gazing" on polls which were conducted in the middle of a referendum where Sinn Fein was given an unprecedented platform to preach "voodoo economics".

While there is no immediate panic within the party, there is a realisation that seats gained in 2011 could be at risk.

Dominic Hannigan TD said: "No backbencher is ignorant to the realities facing us, we all could lose our seats. But this is a five-year term. I don't doubt the polls, or what they are saying in terms of the downward trend. We need to deliver our social agenda, the political reform we promised and we need to move faster. I think most people would agree with that."

But many outside the parliamentary party have said the party is being dominated by Fine Gael at the cabinet table.

Dublin City councillor, Rebecca Moynihan said: "We need to rebalance the Government in favour of Labour values. There is no doubt that Fine Gael so far as the larger party have been particularly dominant."

Sunday Independent

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