Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ranked: Ireland's best and worst health ministers

Maurice Gueret

There is no party quite like Fianna Fail for hanging dirty linen up in public and forgetting to wash it.

Michael Martin

One prominent Dublin member was quoted in the papers recently as saying that 'several people' had said to him over the years that party leader Micheal Martin was the "worst minister for health we ever had". A career in diplomacy beckons.

For what it's worth, I'd certainly have him well up my list of poor health ministers. When the service needed radical surgery and the country was awash with borrowed money to do it, he chose a nip, tuck and a bit of Botox. The HSE is his legacy, and he left behind a health system far more dangerous than a smoky pub.

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Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin Photo: Arthur Carron

Dr James Reilly

Dr James Reilly would be another major contender. Fine Gael excited the country with its plans for health insurance for all. But insurers simply jacked up premiums, Reilly's wheels came off, and we are all paying the cost today.

James Reilly at the count centre in Cloghran, Dublin, during the election. Photo: Stephen Collins

Dr Noel Browne

Dr Noel Browne meant well and aimed high, but he was not an effective politician. His ministerial career lasted just three years. But he did have his finger on an important national pulse. He failed to understand why the State did not pay salaries to its doctors like they paid to postmen. As he put it succinctly, the doctor gets "a sweetener in the form of a fee", every time he drops in a letter. This he saw as a driving force behind the rising cost of health services without any improvement in efficiency.

Noel Browne

Mary Harney

I don't think Mary Harney met expectations in the health brief, but she did more for the health of the country as environment minister than any other, with her 1990 ban on Dublin's smoky coal. Her measure got only a fraction of the publicity showered on the smoking ban, yet saved as many as 100,000 lives in the last 25 years.

Mary Harney. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Barry Desmond

For bravery, it's hard to beat Barry Desmond. He had to preside over dreadful cutbacks in the 1980s, but when then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald tried to reshuffle him from office, Desmond stuck to his desk like a limpet. He was that rare health minister. He was blunt, too. In the first line of his memoir, he said that he merely did what all sensible Cork men do. He bought a one-way ticket to Dublin.

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Former minister Barry Desmond

I am interested in your views on the best and worst health ministers. There have been about 25 of them in all, and you can drop me a line at PO Box 5049, Dublin 6w, or email me at

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