Tuesday 21 May 2019

An open and largely shut case of deception

Kicking Mary Lou McDonald is one thing, playing political games with sick children goes too far

Il‎lustration by Tom Halliday
Il‎lustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Credit where credit is due. It's uplifting when politicians do what they say they'll do. It's worthy of note when the Taoiseach, for instance, recognises the dreadful plight of children in pain and does something about it.

We were uplifted, those of us who paid attention to Leaders' Questions last Tuesday.

Micheal Martin began proceedings by referring to the plight of children suffering from scoliosis. RTE has done exceptional work in exposing the failures of our medical system in dealing with this awful condition.

It affects the spine, it bends it in a way that disables the patient and can result in great pain. It can have damaging secondary effects.

The psychological pain inflicted on parents who watch their children suffer most be draining.

Last March, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny pledged that by the end of this year no child would have to wait longer than four months for the operation to relieve the condition.

Four months.

That should make us scream.

Four months of discomfort, pain and worry, drumming into these children the knowledge that relief is available, but we've arranged things so they don't get it - some day, but not yet, not yet, not yet.

When Enda Kenny made his pledge there were 124 scoliosis patients waiting longer than four months. That figure is now 145.

One child went on the waiting list in August 2016 - a year and two months ago. Not only is the delay painful and disheartening, it further damages the spine, making the condition worse with every passing day.

Enda Kenny's pledge looks to be in trouble. The State is now arranging to send kids to the UK, to Germany and to France, for the operation, shovelling them out of the country in an effort to meet the target.

Sending children away to have a serious operation far from their siblings and friends, their grannies and grandads is drastic. They're deprived of the support of those who can comfort and reassure them - it's traumatic, but apparently unavoidable, if the delays are not to be even worse.

Last Tuesday, Taoiseach Varadkar told the Dail that scoliosis is a very important issue, "which is very close to my heart".

His Government has that thing that all governments have close to hand when they know they've screwed up yet again - an 'action plan'.

When he was minister for health, Varadkar met with the spinal surgeons and with various other interests, and one of "their big asks", he said, was that a new operating theatre be opened in Crumlin Hospital, at a cost of about €3m.

"That new theatre is there," he said on Tuesday. "It is now open."

Well, fair play. Credit where credit is due. It was genuinely uplifting when the Taoiseach stated that he was told the operating theatre was needed, and now it's there, open and working.

Next day, Michelle Long, of the Scoliosis Advocacy Network, was on Morning Ireland. And we learned that the new theatre in Crumlin Hospital opened in April for one day a week.

It stayed the same through May and June.

As late as July it was open only two days a week.

And now, as the wait lengthens and the end of the year approaches, it is open a third day a week.

The Taoiseach is playing a tricky game. Technically, his words are true. The theatre is open. But he withheld relevant information, and the effect was to turn a story of failure into one of apparent success.

And that's deception.

We're used to politicians spinning information - telling us the good stuff and shoving the bad stuff down the back of the sofa.

And we're used to politicians pulling strokes, and then telling us they don't pull strokes.

The latest is the Stepaside garda station scandal, where Shane Ross celebrates getting the station reopened, and simultaneously denies stroking. And, frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn.

It's all playacting.

When the Taoiseach smears Mary Lou McDonald, likening her to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, who vilifies refugees, well - McDonald can look after herself.

(Mind you, even Brendan Howlin, no friend of Sinn Fein, objected to that and had the decency to say so.)

McDonald gave as good as she got, which was then deemed - by the acting Ceann Comhairle and by much of the media - to be unacceptable. You must, it seems, take it with good grace, you must not dish it out to a nice guy like the Taoiseach, who is an important chap, with many nice important friends, with whom he exchanges funny socks.

Not to worry, that's the way these things work. Truth is optional, reality is bendable, it's all a bit of a game.

But, come on - children in pain.

If ever there was an issue that demanded utter frankness and lack of smart-arse word games it is this.

Apparently, the Taoiseach is unable to resist the smart-arse move, no matter what the issue - not even on such a sensitive matter that he claims is "close to my heart".

There are, said Michelle Long, 158 children waiting for urgent surgery. There were three operated on last week.

This is political. It's political - like the trolley scandal and homelessness - in a way that most of that which passes for politics is not.

For instance, the Budget approaches - and we get more word games, daily, as politicians manoeuvre to make themselves look good.

Example: front page of The Irish Times last Friday. Political scoop. 'Donohoe budget stance angers Alliance.' The story was based on anonymous members of the Independent Alliance. It quotes them as being "unhappy", "not happy" and "really annoyed".

I love that "really".

I can almost see Finian or Shane stamping their foot and saying: "I'm really annoyed, no kidding."

Adults said these things. Adults wrote them down. They were published on the front page of a paper that adults read.

This childish prancing is presented to us - and it's all over the media these days - as 'politics'. It's people throwing shapes in an effort to make themselves look good.

If the media continues providing politicians with this service we should really send them an invoice.

Has there ever been a government so obsessed with superficial matters?

The last Taoiseach ran away from debates, and talked of meetings that never happened, with people who weren't there.

He did so, however, with a mere regiment of PR types holding his hand. This Taoiseach has a veritable army of them.

Each week, he puts out one or more videos in which he addresses us directly, telling us what he's been doing and what's coming up. It's embarrassingly superficial and self-serving.

Worse - and God, I've watched each and every one of these terribly cringe-inducing things - it seems the Taoiseach is genuinely of the opinion that this is somehow politically informative.

He's now spending €160,000 on research into how the public perceives the Government.

This is using public money for political research that can be used for the benefit of the government parties.

Simon Harris has demanded that the HSE send him a list of all health-associated PR events and launches. It seems he's missed some. Think of all the extra pictures of Simon we'll get to see.

Fianna Fail criticises this, but collaborates.

It's asinine, but it's dangerous.

Everything, including the homeless, including kids in pain, has become material to be moulded into pleasing shapes, to decorate the CV of childish, frantically ambitious people.

Sunday Independent

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