Friday 18 October 2019

John Downing: 'Park the phoney war - are there really any votes in health woes?'


Micheál Martin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Micheál Martin. Photo: Tony Gavin
John Downing

John Downing

That rhetoric machine is doing handstands as the pre-election phoney war ramps up. So what are our politicians saying to one another in essence about the ongoing health service problems?

Here is Micheál Martin in summary: say sorry to frontline hospital workers for claiming they don't 'turn up' over the Christmas period.

The riposte from Leo Varadkar, in summary, is: I'm not for turning, Christmas is the winter, the height of the sickness season, health workers' high season, and we need hospitals going "full whack".

Let's park the slogans in this "phoney war" and outline a few simple facts. Firstly, let's not forget that both party leaders were underperforming health ministers in a recent former life, who continue to do a really good job at slagging each other off about that part of their careers.

Mr Martin was health minister from January 2000 until September 2004, who got deserved but belated kudos from the workplace smoking ban as he exited. But he also sat on the commissioning of 100-plus expert reports, as queues, delays, and trolleys prevailed through a period of unprecedented national prosperity.

Mr Varadkar, a young medical doctor not shy about talking up reforms, was health minister from July 2014 until May 2016. He managed through without undue calamity, but also without delivering meaningful changes. It was a time when Ireland was emerging from recession but his performance was also disappointing as he parked big future Fine Gael reform plans.

So, that is a dull scoreless draw - but it is also political history. We must now move on to the present day and the realpolitik that both the Taoiseach and the opposition leader believe they can gain political advantage in arguing about the health service management's many ongoing difficulties.

Fianna Fáil believes it offers an opportunity to break from accusations that it is propping the Fine Gael-led minority coalition's failures. That is a version of events Sinn Féin loves to promulgate. Micheál Martin clearly feels he is on the right side of this one for two reasons. Firstly, he is aligned with the doctors and nurses, those ministering angels nobody dare question. Secondly, because he hopes this is an example of the Fianna Fáil dream that the Taoiseach and Fine Gael will soon cock things up politically.

But the Taoiseach trusts this will enhance his reputation for speaking frankly, challenging safe political stereotypes. He can point to the €17bn to be spent next year on health and ask whether more money will help health service problems.

The bigger doubt is whether there are many votes in the health services' chronic woes. In elections in 2002 and in 2007 Fine Gael tried to play that card - and lost. In 2016, in an Ireland still shell-shocked by austerity, Fianna Fáil played that self-same card successfully.

So, what of a general election in 2019?

Nobody could be too sure right now.

Irish Independent

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