Sunday 24 February 2019

John Downing: 'Leo says he has 'full confidence' in Simon - like he did Frances'

  

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Downing

John Downing

The word "know" is a slippery one at the best of times. Put it into the realm of politics and it becomes even more fluid and elusive.

So, up until Thursday evening, the Health Minister Simon Harris only knew in a general way that there were serious pricing problems with the flagship children's hospital project. By his early version of events, he was trying from his first alert about problems, on August 27 last year, to get a fuller picture.

And when he got that he told the Taoiseach and the Government all he knew on November 9. But memos released at various stages on Thursday suggest that there were indicative figures available to Mr Harris in September which outlined the bulk of the runaway spending problem, close on €400m extra costs, and counting.

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But Mr Harris is clinging to the fullest extension of the word "know" - a knowledge based on full and official figures, which he insists only landed in November. He further argues that he is not a "messenger boy", running about delivering bits and bobs of information - instead, he acted like a minister should and delivered a full report of all he formally knew.

We have to see all this in the context of what was going on in autumn 2018 as preparations were going ahead for the Budget for this year. Part of that was plugging a 2018 health shortfall of €655m and there was a considerable capital spending programme also to be funded.

This leads to questions about interactions between the Health and Public Expenditure Departments and their respective ministers. That in turn puts Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe in the picture as he is also in charge of public spending.

We all now know - without any wriggle room for interpretation here - that there were serious concerns about runaway spending on the project among senior Government officials since at least June 2018. Is it really credible, Fianna Fáil's Dara Calleary asks, that such concerns were not passed on earlier and in more detail to ministers Donohoe and Harris, the more so since they were engaged in heavy talks about money? Mr Donohoe insists not - and is determined he only learned about the problem on November 9.

But where is all this going now? Well, nowhere the Government formally says until the consultants, PwC, report on the issue on March 29 next. The Taoiseach has "full confidence" in Mr Harris.

Then again he said the same about former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald on November 22, 2017, and she was forced to quit on November 28. He was also evincing support for another minister, Denis Naughten, just hours short of his forced resignation on October 11 last year.

Much now depends on further revelations. There is also a game within a game as Sinn Féin tries to pressurise Fianna Fáil into a no-confidence motion. But Brexit uncertainty remains this battered Government's backstop for the moment.

Irish Independent

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