Sunday 8 December 2019

Lise Hand: Mary sails off into the sunset leaving Brian to face hospital storm

Lise Hand

MARY Harney apologised to Aine Lawlor from 'Morning Ireland'. The phone-line was a bit fuzzy, she explained, because "I'm far away".

And indeed she was.

The Health Minister was about as far away from Leinster House as it's possible to get, without checking into the Mir space-station.

For the minister is in New Zealand, and such is her enthusiasm for flying the green flag for St Patrick's Day that she headed there over a week in advance and is staying until March 21.

But any fond hopes Mary may have harboured of giving it some welly in Wellington while leaving political strife back in the Northern Hemisphere vamoosed like the snakes from Ireland when the Tale of Tallaght broke.

And so, in Groundhog Day fashion, the sun rose upon yet another government minister having some explaining to do.

And it's an all-too-familiar story of yet another cock-up in the health system.

Unfortunately for the Taoiseach, he doesn't escape the clutches of the opposition and the media until tomorrow, when he heads off on a week-long trip to the US.

And he certainly wasn't going anywhere until he had faced a grilling over the almost 58,000 X-rays which were not read by radiologists at Tallaght Hospital over a four-year period.

The line of faces -- Dermot Ahern, Micheal Martin, Mary Hanafin and Batt O'Keeffe among them -- arrayed along the Government's front bench looked particularly glum as Leader's Questions turned into an inquisition on the matter.

Enda was out of the traps from the get-go. He demanded confirmation that the Health Minister was indeed on the other side of the world.

"It is unconscionable that a number of people -- more than twice the population of Co Leitrim -- should not have their X-rays read over a four-year period. It smacks of a gigantic cover-up," he charged.

"There is a possibility that many people are walking around with undetected tumours," he added -- a remark which certainly would do little to allay the fears of anyone affected by this latest shambles.

Brian's language tends to get more baroque when he's on the defensive, and this time was no exception. "The St Patrick's Day issues arise this weekend in New Zealand, rather than on St Patrick's Day itself," he informed Enda.

But then it was Eamon Gilmore's turn, and he ratcheted up the pressure on Mary. While the situation was "a medical problem and a human problem", Eamon reckoned it was also a political problem.

"When reshuffling his Cabinet, will the Taoiseach appoint a new minister for health?" he asked. But Brian was in full groundhog mode and was once again on his white horse, riding to the defence of a colleague.

"Minister Harney has my confidence," he declared firmly.

"She. . . has brought about more changes for the reform of the health sector than any of her predecessors," he added, as two seats away from him former health minister Micheal Martin fixed his gaze on the floor.

It was a ringing endorsement of Mary, but it didn't stop the opposition hounds baying for blood. They have the taste for it now. By lunchtime, Fine Gael's health spokesman James Reilly had called for her to fly back and resign.

Just after lunch Brian attended the official announcement that Galway had secured the final leg of the Volvo Ocean Race in 2012. This was a rare chance to celebrate a genuine and potential money-spinning coup for Ireland -- but instead he sailed into the choppy waters churned up by Mary Harney.

Brian is all at sea. He probably doesn't want to move her in a reshuffle, but the pressure is on. And judging by the glum faces on the front bench, none of the other ministers seem to fancy a move into Health.

Never mind. Tomorrow he'll be far away himself. But trouble won't need to take the government jet to follow him anyway.

Irish Independent

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