Wednesday 20 March 2019

John Downing: 'Two things we do not need: an early election and further delays in the children's hospital project'

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

John Downing

Signs are that, with a little humble pie and some public shriving, Simon Harris can hang on to his job as Health Minister for another while at very least. He has had a bad time and he does look out of his depth in the management of the biggest ever health project in the State, building a new children's hospital.

But it is time to move beyond the political games and see how best to address people's genuine anger at a major lack of care over the spending of taxpayers' money in what looks like a 50pc over-spend. Driving Mr Harris out of his job would most likely drive us to an early general election, with just 46 days left to the Brexit witching date.

It is also very likely that the world of senior officials, in de facto charge of building the children's hospital, would remain unchanged. Hanging Harris is not going to save public money.

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Above all, there are two things we absolutely do not want to come from this most lamentable debacle in managing the building of the children's hospital.

Firstly, we must not have an early general election over all this. Secondly, the project must continue: we have had far too much dithering and delay and it is time the building continued.

Saying both of those things does not in any way suggest that blank cheques should continue to issue for builders at the site of the new hospital adjacent to St James's in Dublin. Indeed, the main focus from now on must be to cap - if not reduce - costs standing around €1.7bn with the meter still running.

Saying all of that does not amount to a 'free pass' for the Health Minister. And there is still merit in questions from the Fianna Fáil deputy leader, Dara Calleary, seeking more clarity about Mr Harris's version of events and that of his senior Cabinet colleague Paschal Donohoe.

The real question still resonates: senior officials were very concerned about runaway spending on this project from at least June of last year.

Can we be convinced that the full extent of this only hit the Cabinet, and/or its senior members, on November 9 of last year?

Let's recall that the Health and Public Expenditure Departments, and Ministers Harris and Donohoe, were up to their oxters in money talks around this time preparing for this year's Budget, which was introduced on October 9 last. How likely is it that they did not broach an emerging big over-spend in the country's biggest capital project?

There will be more Freedom of Information requests and more inquisitions at Oireachtas committees following that theme. Past experience suggests this could mean more woe for the ministers and the Government, with perhaps calamitous results.

Already Mr Harris has had to, er, "revisit and clarify" his early version of events - that he learnt generally about over-spending issues on August 27 and was working on establishing the specific figures until early November. It has been clear since last Thursday that the shape and scale of the problem - amounting to an almost €400m overspend - was available to him in September.

It appears likely that the Health Minister may be in the Dáil this week correcting the record and apologising. It further seems likely that, while this will not dim the rhetoric, it should paper over the fault-lines for now.

It has all been a mixed blessing for Fianna Fáil: an opportunity to question Government competence in managing public finances, which is yet again offset by the reality of the bigger opposition party's recurring problem of keeping this minority Fine Gael-led Coalition in existence. But it could play to the longer-term advantage of Micheál Martin and Company, provided they are patient.

Sinn Féin, whose leader Mary Lou McDonald yesterday quietly marked one full year in office, is pursuing its usual 'two for the price of one' attack strategy. While it has not spared Fine Gael, and Ministers Harris and Donohoe, it has also made it clear that it really wants to 'call out' Fianna Fáil on this one.

At stake, as usual, is the right to claim oneself the premier party of Opposition. Sinn Féin says it is ready to table a motion of no-confidence against the Health Minister, but knows like everyone else that success in that enterprise would mean an early election at the wrong time.

Fianna Fáil has grounds for pointing to Sinn Féin's form in this department. Last year it repeatedly threatened a no-confidence motion in the embattled Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. When finally Fianna Fáil said it would not support such a move, Sinn Féin went ahead, safe in the knowledge that there was no real risk of an unwanted election.

Ms McDonald, still one of the Dáil's most polished performers, has had a very mixed year at the helm. We quietly passed the first anniversary of her election yesterday. But her and Sinn Féin's travails are for another occasion.

Back with Fianna Fáil, it could prove a boon to have two senior ministers being continually under fire for the coming months. A simmering, rather than an over-boiling, pan could help Mr Martin improve his positioning ahead of a general election now, one way or another, a year or so away.

Those of us who love our politics will have smiled broadly at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's expressions of "full confidence" in his embattled Health Minister. We do not have to labour what happened with similar pledges of confidence in the case of Frances Fitzgerald in November 2017 and Denis Naughten last October.

But we have to note a few realpolitik points which shore up the confidence expressions in Mr Harris - for now.

First is the acknowledgement within Fine Gael as much as Fianna Fáil that sacking him would mean an unwanted early election.

Beyond that there is the reality that Mr Harris took the 'Coveney side' in the 2017 Fine Gael leadership election. It will not be lost that Simon Coveney won the membership vote in that contest. Bagging a Coveney-ite would revive grassroots charges of treachery against the leader which linger since Ms Fitzgerald's untimely exit from Government.

All of that would compound ardent Fine Gael members' distress about the nurses' strike, the ongoing housing crisis and other issues. Things might not be that far off 'a run' on the Fine Gael leader rapidly losing his sheen.

We must also note that the ill-judged picket on Mr Harris's family home will further stoke such feelings of grassroots solidarity. Such incidents of rank discourtesy will also help the Health Minister's diminished standing with the general public.

We are in a difficult time politically. But it is important for all our key politicians to keep a sense of proportion and priorities.

That means remembering that Brexit is the key issue to be dealt with and that time is desperately short to mitigate economic calamity.

Irish Independent

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