Monday 19 August 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Wanted: a Taoiseach grown-ups can trust'

A politician addicted to spin was forced to retreat by concerned medics and good journalism, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

You've perhaps seen it, the video of Leo Varadkar, with assorted Fine Gael mates, standing beside a busker on a Limerick street, singing along as the busker delivers a version of the Cranberries' Zombie.

The cringe was mighty.

The FG lads, bopping about, look like scouts from a far-off planet, under strict orders to "blend in, try to pass for human".

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The video reaches new heights moments after the song ends. Varadkar assures the busker that he's "pretty good", assures him the congratulations are sincere: "And I don't do bulls**t," Varadkar boasts.

Most people, if they needed to, would say, "And I mean that." But, as a scout from a distant planet, Varadkar seems to have been briefed that rougher language is appropriate when speaking to a Young Earth Person.

Always spinning to impress, that's our Leo.

Before the Taoiseach gratuitously thrust himself into the Waterford mortuary scandal, he was in trouble over the housing scandal. Addicted to spin, Mr Varadkar displays a hardness of neck that far exceeds even the solidity of Mr Ruby Walsh's nether regions.

Last week, as homeless figures continued to rise, Varadkar expressed renewed confidence in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. "It's a very difficult job," he said, as though that means anything.

He told us that Murphy didn't cause the housing crisis, as though someone suggested he did.

In short, Mr Varadkar repeatedly demonstrates an ability to "do bulls**t" on an issue that tears the hearts out of countless families.

He even spun the old "it was broke when we found it" excuse. You see, he said, when FG took over from FF in 2011 "the banks were bust, the construction industry had collapsed, hundreds of thousands of people were in negative equity".

Really?

That was eight years ago. The housing problem was big then, it's bigger now. Increasing wealth inequality has generated further profit-hunting, distorting the housing market and putting shelter beyond many. Larger packs of profit-mongers are jostling to benefit from the misery of people thrown on to the streets.

And to benefit from the desperation of fairly affluent people trying to find a way into the housing market.

Varadkar's impulse to spin is an amateurish, compulsive response.

Old chap, we're not even complaining that you haven't fixed the broken market. We're p***ed that after eight bloody years you still can't point to a workable plan - and don't, please don't, give us that "rebuilding" nonsense.

You're utterly committed to "solutions" that require mass profits for private gamblers. You hope that their greed will somehow repair the social devastation from the crash that was caused by the very same greed of the very same people.

The need for urgency, the need for state emergency measures, is obvious. Solutions found to similar problems in the past, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s; solutions found abroad; these are unacceptable to the ideologues in charge.

As journalist Philip O'Connor put it last week with apt concision: "They are very much aware of what they need to do, but they choose not to."

In the midst of this continuing social vandalism, the Taoiseach reacted to the Waterford mortuary scandal by reaching for the same tools - spin, insinuation and obfuscation.

He sneered at the pleas of those who had the facts and made up his own version of reality. Then, he claimed he did nothing of the sort.

Thankfully, to counter the Taoiseach's fantasies, we have the first-rate reporting of Waterford News & Star journalist Darren Skelton.

The mortuary at University Hospital Waterford was built in 1994. By 2002 it was clear it wasn't up to the job. The catchment area covers 520,000 people; the mortuary has refrigeration space for six bodies. The facility lacks many of the basics.

By 2004 it was clearly seen to be unfit for purpose. A new mortuary was "in the pipeline". Hooray.

A mere eight years passed before a HSE building report confirmed the deficiencies. Another year for approval from the Capital Steering Group. Another two years to planning permission being applied for, in 2015.

As Skelton put it, by 2019 the project had "reached stage three of a nine-stage process".

It's in a queue for things to be funded, and we all know what HSE waiting lists are like.

Earlier this year, Skelton heard of a letter to hospital management, from four consultants, questioning the lack of urgency. He looked for it under Freedom of Information, but was refused. It seems that letting the public know what's going on would be - I kid you not - "contrary to public interest".

Skelton got hold of the letter, anyway.

The account from the four consultants was horrific. The risks, it said, are extreme. The risks affect staff, the public and the HSE. Bodies lying on trolleys, body fluids leaking on to the floor. Smells and sounds, biological risks.

Let's not go any further, other than to say this is clearly and horribly wrong. As the letter put it, it's "unacceptable and somewhat insulting to bereaved, deceased and staff alike".

Publicity led to sudden declarations that things were moving towards replacing the mortuary - be patient, a few more months. Long enough until the heat goes off the issue, then it can join the interminable queue of Things We Can't Quite Afford Just Now.

Enter the Taoiseach.

Intent in putting the issue back in its box, Varadkar denigrated the consultants. And, by implication, all who dared demand change.

He said, "no evidence has been brought forward to support" the consultants' claims.

"There were no incident reports from any staff... so it's definitely a strange story... Certainly those who made them haven't put forward any evidence to support them."

No reports, no evidence...

Let us lay it out, in terms even a Taoiseach can understand. The consultants' letter, written to hospital management, begins with: "We wish to formally bring to your attention the current state of mortuary and post-mortem facilities."

Right?

Get that, Taoiseach?

Formally.

Bring to your attention.

What part of "formally bring to your attention" isn't a "report"? What part of the ensuing paragraphs, written and signed by knowledgable, experienced professionals, who have seen this with their own eyes is not "evidence"?

Oh, I get it.

Perhaps the correct form is headed, 'For Use In the Event That Bodies Are Witnessed Decomposing on Trolleys in Corridors'.

Perhaps we shouldn't take seriously any alert, no matter how careful, restrained and nuanced it is, unless it's written on this form.

Therefore, the Taoiseach is entitled to insinuate the report is somehow illegitimate.

Skelton's journalism was careful, detailed. Varadkar backed off.

"The only thing I said was there were different accounts, and I did not want to be calling any staff member dishonest."

Back-peddling. Then, an admission that he regrets "the tone" of his comments. Some poor, bad-minded person might conclude he was somehow denying the truth - but, no, he was merely...

Maybe a bit of grovel might be in order... but... oh, dear... why can't they just believe a Taoiseach when he speaks?

If this infantile conduct involved the governance of a racing pigeon club, members would resign. Tragically, it involves the governance of the country.

We, the citizens, cannot resign, but someone should.

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