Tuesday 23 January 2018

'My life flashed before me as I hit the ground... I'm very, very lucky'

Minister Denis Naughten was hit by a car while out cycling and ended up on a hospital trolley at the height of the overcrowding crisis in emergency departments

Recovering: Denis Naughten hopes to be back at his desk within the next couple of weeks. 'I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,' he says Photo: Tom Burke
Recovering: Denis Naughten hopes to be back at his desk within the next couple of weeks. 'I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,' he says Photo: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Denis Naughten considers himself "very, very lucky". He was struck by a car while cycling two days into the new year, but survived.

"My life did flash before my eyes before I hit the ground," he says, adding that he imagines it would be the same for anyone in a similar situation.

"It was the shock of the accident. It was the fact that you're lying on the road and people are working around you. It just shows you how fickle life is... all of that goes through your mind."

It's almost two weeks since the Independent minister suffered spinal injuries in the incident that saw him rushed to Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe, at the height of the emergency department crisis. He was one of 612 patients that nurses counted on trolleys around the country that night.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the incident, Naughten says he is "battered and bruised but I'll live," when asked by the Sunday Independent how he's doing.

"I'm very, very lucky that the injuries that I picked up were not far more serious," he adds.

Naughten is still recovering, and doing what his doctor tells him to as his injuries heal.

He says the accident is something he wouldn't want anyone to go through.

Sadly, he know the risks of the roads all too well. His father Liam, a former TD, was the serving Seanad Cathaoirleach when he was killed in a car crash aged just 52 in 1996.

Read more: Minister Naughten struck by car while cycling

Naughten - who entered politics after the tragedy - says: "Every single year hundreds of families go through the exact same thing."

Indeed, the figures are stark - 187 people died on Irish roads last year and many more were injured.

Of his own accident, Naughten says he "just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time".

A Garda spokesman said "investigations are continuing" into the incident.

The lunchtime excursion on January 2 was the fourth time the minister, a keen cyclist, had been out on his bike over the festive season.

Naughten's wife Mary was with him and fortunately wasn't hurt. "She got an awful shock," he says but adds: "It was very reassuring to have her there throughout it all.

"It's a scary time when you're lying on the road and they're putting a neck brace and a back brace on you. You just don't know what's happening."

He was wearing a helmet, but says that all road users are vulnerable, not just cyclists.

Naughten says drivers have an "enormous responsibility", but so do pedestrians and cyclists in ensuring they're visible. He adds that the Road Safety Authority has been doing a good job at raising awareness and it "needs to continue to do that".

Naughten has been an advocate for the health and emergency services during his career.

He famously fell out with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and was expelled from Fine Gael after he voted against the last government's cuts to services at his local Roscommon Hospital. Following his horrific experience at the start of the month, he can't say enough in praise of the emergency services and staff in Ballinasloe as well as those at University Hospital Galway.

He was one of 18 patients on trolleys in Portiuncula that night.

"It was extremely busy," says Naughten, adding that hospital staff were under "huge pressure".

"I was really impressed by the professionalism of all the staff that I came across from those at the scene of the accident to those at the hospital. Even though I was there through a very busy time in both hospitals, I have nothing but the height of praise for the care that I got.

"I've been talking about these issues for years. It really opened my eyes when you're actually in the situation yourself," he adds.

Naughten says the issues in Ireland's emergency departments are "complex" but insists "progress" is being made.

He gives the example of a HSE review of protocols on where ambulances take patients. In his area, this would potentially mean more people being taken to Roscommon Hospital for treatment rather than other facilities which may be under more pressure at the time.

He suggests that improved access to diagnostics would mean that patients could be in and out of emergency departments more quickly.

"Yes, emergency departments need more resources, but how [they're] targeted is as important as the resources themselves," he says. But it's a Cabinet colleague who's tasked with finding a solution to the situation in emergency departments.

Read more: Injured minister waited hours for hospital bed

Naughten, the Communications, Climate Action and Environment Minister, has a busy agenda of his own this year, whether it's ensuring that the National Broadband Plan stays on track or the smooth introduction of pay-by-weight bins. That comes before making sure Ireland meets its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He has been in regular contact with the department over the last couple of weeks and is "using technology to keep up to speed" on what's happening.

Technology is at the heart of perhaps his biggest challenge. Along with Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys, he has been given the job of delivering high quality broadband to virtually every corner of the country as promised in the Programme for Government.

It's feared the roll-out won't be complete until 2023. Naughten says nobody understands the frustration of that better than him, and that he's "been on this bandwagon for two decades", highlighting the flaws of internet connections in rural areas.

He wants the contract signed this year and "shovels in the ground in 2018". He expects the actual roll-out to be quicker than has been projected. He puts this down to changes the Government has already introduced, such as having a single point of contact in each local authority for companies installing broadband networks.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that the infrastructure we put in place is future-proof for at least 25 years and that it actually dramatically transforms the economy of this country, particularly the economy of provincial towns and rural Ireland," he says.

Given that no one knows how long the current minority government will last, perhaps it's not surprising that Naughten doesn't know if the broadband roll-out will be complete during his term as minister. But he says the plan will be "a long way down the road" and "well on its way to being done".

Naughten believes new RTE director general Dee Forbes can "transform" the national broadcaster which falls under his remit as communications minister.

Read more: TV times: How Dee Forbes plans to make RTE ready for the future of broadcasting

"I think she's really up to the job and she has my 100pc support," he says.

Forbes outlined RTE's financial troubles to an Oireachtas committee before Christmas. Asked if her success in the job will be determined by whether or not she turns that around, Naughten says that all semi-states need to be on a "sound financial footing".

"For me, the litmus test will be if there is a clear blueprint on the future direction of these companies.

"I think Dee Forbes has a lot of very exciting ideas and if she's given the opportunity to implement those with the assistance of the staff and the board, I think it can dramatically transform RTE."

The Communications Committee is examining how public service media is funded and as part of that is considering the introduction of a new broadcasting charge.

Last summer Naughten ruled out such a charge in the short term, but he says he will approach the issue with "an open mind" if it is recommended by TDs and senators.

He says that rather than raising the current TV licence fee, his focus is on better collection of the existing payment.

Naughten says he doesn't know if Enda Kenny will still be Taoiseach during the planned visit by Pope Francis next year, adding that it's "a matter for Fine Gael".

He has no intention of rejoining his former party, saying: "I'm quite comfortable where I am."

He's "getting on fine" with Kenny as well as the rest of the Cabinet and rates the passing of Budget 2017 "without controversy" as the Government's biggest achievement.

As for new politics, he says it has put "far more power into the hands of parliamentarians" and that "includes government ministers".

He adds that it has been a useful tool in his department having the views of the public expressed through their TDs, both Government and Opposition.

"It does undermine the power that the civil service has had up to now - but I don't think that's a bad thing," he says.

In terms of relations with other parties, he says groups like Sinn Fein and AAA-PBP are "always going to try and throw in grenades" but they've also co-operated.

He doesn't believe Fianna Fail will pull the plug on the Government when it's most advantageous to the party, as it would be "badly damaged" in an election if it did.

He views the greatest risk to the Government as "not listening" to the people.

"There's no one shouting off the rooftops in relation to this government from a public point of view but there's no one hugely giving out either," he says.

He has been touched by the support he has had from the public since his accident.

"One thing that's amazed me is the amount of support that I've got in social media, texts, emails, messages, cards and letters from right across the country," he says.

Naughten expects to be back at his desk within the next couple of weeks and has been working from home. "With back injuries, a lot of it is rest and time," he says. "I'm following the medical orders."

Sunday Independent

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