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Reilly's strengths will be tested by a weakened health system

A VERY interesting experiment is taking place in the Department of Health. For the first time in many years, the organisation is under the stewardship of a minister, Dr James Reilly, who has experience of working in the health system; in his case as a family physician, and prior to that as a non-consultant hospital doctor.

The gulf in personal experience between Reilly and previous Irish health ministers is further underlined by the fact that the aggregate non-political occupational history of his three immediate ministerial predecessors, prior to their joining the Dail, was around four years, and was spent entirely in teaching (Micheal Martin and Mary Harney) or legal practice (Brian Cowen).

All became full-time politicians in their mid-twenties. Before them, Michael Noonan, who served in Health in the mid-Nineties, had a longer pre-political professional career, again as a teacher. Prior to Noonan, Brendan Howlin had entered full-time politics in his mid-twenties, again after a relatively brief phase of teaching.

Reilly's curriculum vitae has other strengths. He is the first health minister who had spent a meaningful period of time as opposition spokesperson on Health prior to ministerial appointment (pace Cowen, who shadowed Health very briefly prior to his appointment in 1997), and is the first who was heavily involved in developing his party's Health policy.

All health ministers, including Reilly, assumed office acknowledging the health system was profoundly flawed and most of them set out their stall with a commitment to reform (the exception was Cowen, who famously refused to play hopscotch in the Angolan minefield).

There is another unique aspect of Reilly's tenure, one that is altogether less positive. All of the others were fortunate enough to serve in office at a time of unprecedented prosperity. Sadly, none of them took that unique opportunity to produce fundamental reform. Reilly will attempt reform during a financial disaster.

Reilly is clearly committed to reform, as evidenced by his decision to replace the board of the Health Service Executive (HSE). While the HSE has not failed because of the composition of its board, but rather because of its internal contradictions, the replacement of the board with a reformist body is an essential first step. Reilly has the zeal to reform, but will he have the opportunity?

Tragically, he has inherited a system which is underwritten by a Government and a country that is not only broke, but that has undertaken a commitment to deliver a bizarre reverse Robin Hood foreign aid scheme to unwise foreign investors for years to come.

As an independent member of Seanad Eireann, and the only medical doctor in the Oireachtas who is not a member of the dominant party of government, I promise to lend my support to the reform process, but also to maintain pressure for its implementation during the difficult years ahead.

Professor John Crown is a newly elected Senator

Sunday Independent