‘To know” is one of the slipperiest terms in the English language, especially in a political context. Does one only “know” something if it is officially conveyed in a form that is signed and sealed, so to speak?
Does one “know” something if it is only common knowledge or only fairly well established? Does one “know” something if one has only heard it as a rumour, or surmised in one’s head that it may very possibly be so?
“Many denials of knowledge are in effect only denials of formal knowledge.”
Now, who wrote that and when? And what was the context?
The writer was Martin Mansergh, the English-born Oxford historian, who became the trusted confidant and guru of three Fianna Fáil taoisigh: Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds, and Bertie Ahern.
Mr Mansergh wrote those words in October 2005 as an introduction to a re-issue of Katharine O’Shea’s 1914 account of her love for The Uncrowned King of Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell.
The point of the piece was that everyone in political circles knew, but chose to ignore, the pair’s irregular relationship.
It became an issue only when Ms O’Shea’s estranged husband, Captain Willie O’Shea, filed for divorce. Then it became “formal knowledge” and played havoc with Irish and British politics.
Fast forward to 2004, and then on to the present day, and we find the slippery consistency of “knowing” has changed little.
Who knew what – and when – about the nursing home charges controversy? Or, more correctly, what was the status of their “knowing”?
The Taoiseach told the Dáil he “must have been” briefed about the State’s nursing home charges legal strategy.
He described it as a “sound policy approach and a legitimate legal strategy”. Those of us recalling events in 2004 will know that then-health minister, and now Tánaiste, Micheál Martin, was at one stage presented with reports on this issue but had scant time to read them.
The net question is about fairness in treating people on low incomes and in poor circumstances
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar argued yesterday that the issue had been grossly misrepresented as it was never policy to provide free private nursing home care for medical card holders.
He dismissed suggestions that successive governments had blocked justified charges refunds as “far-fetched”.
The Attorney General is preparing a report for the Government and we expect it to be published next week.
Sinn Féin has accused the State of forcing elderly people to pay for nursing home care. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald said successive governments pursued “a heartless strategy” knowing it would hit the least well-off hardest.
We are looking at successive governments from the 1970s onwards – involving Fianna Fáil, the now-defunct Progressive Democrats, the Green Party, Fine Gael and Labour – being accused of perfidious sleight of hand.
All of these, and their various back-up civil service teams, argue they have an obligation to defend taxpayers’ money against excessive or egregious compensation claims.
The net question is about fairness in treating people on low incomes and in poor circumstances.
Nobody expected this Government to be facing calls to detail how much was known by politicians about a state strategy to contest claims from people who believe they, or their relatives, were wrongly charged for nursing home care.
TDs and senators in the Oireachtas Health Committee are likely to request that former health ministers, including Mr Varadkar, appear before the committee next week.
We do know that many elderly medical card holders, and their families, had to pay for nursing home care over a 30-year period, until 2005, when it was found they had been entitled to care free of charge.