Sunday 16 December 2018

How long until sparkle fades and reality bites Simon Harris?

Cancer scandal damages 'hero' of Eighth Amendment referendum victory

Celebrating repeal of the Eighth Amendment at Dublin Castle in May were TD Francis Fitzgerald, Health Minister Simon Harris, Senator Catherine Noone and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Damien Eagers
Celebrating repeal of the Eighth Amendment at Dublin Castle in May were TD Francis Fitzgerald, Health Minister Simon Harris, Senator Catherine Noone and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Damien Eagers
Ruth Morrissey had to go before the High Court despite political promises. Picture: Collins
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

The sign in Dublin Castle after the referendum on amending the Eighth was succinct, if slightly tongue in cheek: "I fancy Simon Harris."

It said everything that needed to be said about how starved we were for thoughtful, articulate politicians.

A tall, skinny and slightly geeky Health Minister had become a heart throb in the midst of the most unlikely circumstances.

On the surface, everything was stacked against him. He lords it over the ministry long-dubbed Angola, the abyss of ever-lengthening waiting lists and chronic service shortfalls.

Trolley crises. Tragedies. Budgetary problems.

The CervicalCheck scandal had already surfaced by the time the Referendum on the Eighth had come round.

And yet breathless reports in May gushed about how the nation had suddenly fallen in love with a Wicklow man with an earnest air far beyond his tender years.

Twitter described him 'the feminist hero we never saw coming' after a 'Prime Time' debate in which Harris had argued clearly and calmly for abortion reform.

"If you believe that it's wrong that every day nine women - and they're not faceless women, they could be our mothers, our wives, our sisters, our nieces, our neighbours, our work colleagues - if you believe it's wrong that they have to travel, you need to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

"This is a once-in-a-generational opportunity... let's not squander it," he concluded to rapturous applause.

So focused was the country on this single issue, that on all other aspects, it seemed the minister got a free pass.

We were willing to overlook the inadequacies because he had come out on the right side of history so far as the Eighth Amendment was concerned.

Asked about those signs long afterwards, Harris amiably laughed them off as being the work of his mum. He was far from foolish enough to let all the adulation go to his head.

But if all political careers end ultimately in failure, so too must all crushes on political figures - or at least any politician who plans on hanging around.

The road is a long and winding one, and such adulation can surely never last - unless of course he can prove himself capable as a man of action as well as one of debate.

And the rumblings have already begun.

The summer break has probably never come at such a fortuitous time for a Government.

Brexit clouds hang low and heavy in the sky - and from a health perspective, the CervicalCheck calamity is far from going away.

Pressure is now building amid the outrage over the broken promises given by the Taoiseach and the health minister that sick women would not be forced to go to court and give evidence.

Those pledges sounded comforting and forceful - but shattered just 10 weeks later amid the sight of a tearful Ruth Morrissey, who had lost her hair from chemotherapy, standing in the High Court as she told the judge how she is not afraid to die but does not want to.

Fianna Fáil's health spokesman Stephen Donnelly called on Leo Varadkar and Harris to apologise for making "false and empty promises" to the women.

The Government had acted "rashly", Harris admitted, popping up to give an interview on Thursday. He said he was "upset and angry" Ruth Morrissey had had to go to court.

"Who in their right mind would want to see a terminally ill person in court? So [the Taoiseach] gave a commitment that every woman would be able to avail of mediation," he said.

"Clearly we hit a roadblock, a very serious blockage... What we have to do now is... work out a way of overcoming that roadblock."

But notwithstanding the appointment of High Court judge Charles Meenan to look at the compensation options, Harris admitted: "There is a big piece here in relation to whether there was negligence."

The 'champion of women' tag has been a boon money cannot buy for Harris - but faced with hard-faced lawyers, here the minister's run of good fortune and way with words may run out.

And is the love for Simon Harris destined to fade, amid the vista of yet another health minister who has let them down?

Irish Independent

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