Friday 15 November 2019

Willie O'Dea: Just like 'Dallas' shower scene, ministers think it's a bad dream

A U-turn on health cuts, budget target confusion... the silly season isn't over yet, writes Willie O'Dea

LAST Tuesday the Taoiseach deftly slipped into his office before disability campaigners gathered outside Government Build-ings to protest against his Government and his Health Minister's health cuts.



While he arrived in time to avoid the protesters, he did not manage to elude the cameras. He was at least prepared for them and had some carefully scripted words to utter at the assembled reporters.

"The silly season is over," he said over and over again like a Buddhist mantra. It was hard to know who he was trying to convince more: himself or us.

Considering that the political news, such as it was, over the previous few weeks had been dominated by his bizarre address at Beal na Blath and Pat Rabbitte's series of "there is no alternative" interviews, his description of the period as silly is very appropriate.

But as we saw in the days that followed, the silly season was far from over. First we had a series of confusing and baffling statements and comments from a range of government sources suggesting that services to the disabled were to be further slashed.

On Thursday evening we had Kenny setting a new personal record of two live and unchoreographed political interviews in as many days. Standing outside a jelly bean factory he told us how we should join him in admiring his Minister for Health (and deputy leader) for having the courage to reverse the cuts announced earlier. Cuts, the Taoiseach suggested, that had really been made by others, not by his minister. Maybe he was experiencing a sugar rush.

By 10pm that night the man we should all be admiring was in an RTE studio telling us that the Taoiseach was wrong and that there had been no U-turn, because there had been no cuts to personal assistants in the first place.

It was like watching a parallel universe. All that was missing was a shower scene a la Dallas, with the minister emerging clad in a towel telling us that the past episodes had all been a dream.

If only it had.

The Government had been warned from the start of this year that its health budget was not going to work. Within weeks of its announcement it was clear that the minister was not giving the alternatives needed to make the cuts he was demanding. He was willing the ends without willing the means.

Before the summer we witnessed minister after minister from both Labour and Fine Gael troop out to convince us that the overrun -- which was then heading towards €300m -- was nothing to worry about.

As we see now, it was, and it is, something to truly worry about.

We now have a minister and a department playing catch-up with only a few months to go. Doing this, making rushed slap-dash improvised cuts, leads to the huge distress and worry for thousands of people already struggling to get by.

Just as bad, it means the budget readjustment of €3.8bn planned for this year may end up being increased to cover the political errors made by ministers over the past year.

Remember, these are the guys who went into the February 2011 election telling us that things were really much worse than the previous government had said. They said that they had a plan to deal with this.

Despite their claims, the figures and targets set by the outgoing government that made €6bn in cuts only weeks before it headed into an election, turned out to be realistic.

Within weeks of taking office the new ministers who were once telling us that the country was banjaxed were heading to Brussels to claim credit for the corrections implemented in the preceding two years -- all of which they had opposed.

Yet now, as they prepare for their second Budget we see and hear that self-same ministers talk as if the €3.8bn figure had just emerged unexpectedly.

The €3.8bn readjustment target is exactly the same as the one they knew about at the election. The only doubt is how much their blunders will add to it. Until the ministers start to act like a cohesive unit we will not be able to say that the silly season is truly over.

Willie O'Dea is a Fianna Fail TD for Limerick city. www.willieodea.ie

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