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Wednesday 19 December 2018

'How dare he?' - cervical cancer victims vent fury at ex-HSE boss

Outraged: Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh have both criticised Tony O’Brien’s remarks in a Sunday newspaper. Photo: Frank McGrath
Outraged: Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh have both criticised Tony O’Brien’s remarks in a Sunday newspaper. Photo: Frank McGrath
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Victims of the cervical cancer scandal have expressed their fury at former HSE boss Tony O'Brien amid claims he hasn't taken responsibility for failures in his leadership.

Mr O'Brien gave an interview where he accused Health Minister Simon Harris of behaving like a "frightened little boy" during the crisis.

He also claimed the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) - which probed the CervicalCheck debacle - acted like a "kangaroo court".

His remarks prompted an angry reaction from victims of failings in the cancer screening service.

Lorraine Walsh, one of 221 women who had smear tests incorrectly read, said she was "appalled" by his interview and claimed he wasn't taking responsibility for his leadership of the HSE.

Stephen Teap, who lost his wife Irene to cervical cancer, accused Mr O'Brien of being "bitter" and "irrelevant".

Vicky Phelan said Tony O’Brien had ‘got it very wrong’. Photo: Frank McGrath
Vicky Phelan said Tony O’Brien had ‘got it very wrong’. Photo: Frank McGrath

Vicky Phelan, whose High Court case revealed the CervicalCheck scandal, said Mr O'Brien had "presided over one of the worst health scandals to hit this country".

In the 'Sunday Business Post' interview, Mr O'Brien criticised Mr Harris's response to the scandal and said: "I would have hoped he'd have been able to show more courage."

He hit out at the treatment of witnesses at the PAC - where he himself was grilled - saying it can be "rude, aggressive and inhumane" and saying no one is "entitled to appoint itself as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner".

Mr O'Brien said he was "horrified" at the non-disclosure of the results of an audit into smear tests to women and described the cases as "tragedies". He admitted that the HSE's initial response to the issue was "a train-wreck".

He argued that the organisation was "blind-sided" and the screening service was "ill-prepared and operating under the false illusion that it dealt with the issue of disclosure".

Mr O'Brien stepped down as HSE boss in May at the height of the controversy.

Ms Walsh told the Irish Independent she was enraged by Mr O'Brien's comments.

"Leaders are there to ensure that the correct systems are put in place, to ensure that an organisation or a company runs properly," she said.

"To me it's just the lack of responsibility for his failures is what annoys me so much - that he's coming out now as choirboy, that 'poor me I was the one that was taken to the slaughter by the politicians'."

Asked what she believes survivors feel about Mr O'Brien's comments, she replied: "Anything I feel is inappropriate to print... I'm just so mad about it. How dare he?"

Meanwhile, Mr Teap branded Mr O'Brien's remarks as "a display of bitterness".

He added that the former HSE boss was "taking swipes at everybody and yet still doesn't address his leadership in all of this".

Mr Teap seized on Mr O'Brien's comments about the initial HSE response being a "train-wreck" and said: "But who was driving the train here? It was him."

He referred to how information on issues in the screening service emerged during PAC meetings and praised the committee for its work.

Mr Teap said he didn't think "it was their place to get that information" but that "unfortunately they were the only ones at the end of the day who could". He said patients and families were "glad there was someone there to get us information on what was going on".

Mr Teap said that for him, Mr O'Brien's opinion is "irrelevant" and said when he stepped down earlier this year "he should have just disappeared from this".

Writing on Twitter last night, Ms Phelan said: "By his own admission 'you should be judged by what you do when you get it wrong'. And with the CervicalCheck debacle, I am afraid, Tony got it very wrong.

"As the head of the HSE, he presided over one of the worst health scandals ever to hit this country."

Asked about Mr O'Brien's comments, Mr Harris's spokesperson said: "The minister doesn't believe in engaging in the politics of personalised attacks.

"The CervicalCheck situation was a difficult time for women in Ireland. The women were and are the minister's priority. Tony O'Brien took the decision to step down. The minister believes that was the right decision. He wishes him well."

The Irish Independent made a number of attempts to contact Mr O'Brien for comment last night, but he did not respond.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defended Mr Harris, saying: "Health is a really tough ministry. He's handling it with ability, empathy and maturity."

Irish Independent

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