Monday 18 November 2019

The day Emma stopped our world

Emma Mhic Mhathuna. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Emma Mhic Mhathuna. Photo: Don MacMonagle


There are moments when the testimony of an individual can be so utterly compelling that it has the power to stop a nation in its tracks and illuminate an outrage that is so devoid of common decency, so completely lacking in basic humanity, that the public as one demands immediate action be taken to rectify a fundamental wrong.

The emotional television interview by Gordon Wilson, a humble draper from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, after the Provisional IRA murdered his daughter Marie in November, 1987, was such a moment. The RTE radio interview of Emma Mhic Mhathuna last week was another. The Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, perhaps summed up best the impact of the Ms Mhic Mhathuna interview when he said his "world began to slow down and then stop" last Thursday morning, and also that it makes ministers reflect on their obligations as members of Government and TDs as members of Dail Eireann.

The BBC would later describe the Enniskillen bombing as a turning point in the Troubles in Northern Ireland because the murderous attack had shaken the IRA "to its core". It is tempting to hope that Ms Mhic Mhathuna's interview will be another such moment for the long inadequate health services in Ireland, but as we know hope springs eternal.

It is human nature always to find fresh cause for optimism, even after such optimism is repeatedly dashed. What is critical now is that the political momentum created by Emma's testimony be sustained in the long term, not just in relation to the "accountability, accountability, accountability" that she rightly demands of the HSE, but that reform will follow to establish patient care as the priority ahead of all other considerations in the health service.

The Government has announced a package of measures to help the women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal, but these measures, while welcome in themselves, are really just government and policymakers attempting to catch up with their "responsibilities" as referred to by the Finance Minister. It absolutely will not do for this or any future government to fall back on old assumptions or weary resignation in the months and years ahead.

Now is the time for all stakeholders in the health service to work together to bring about what change is evidentially required to develop a service that works for all, and in a timely, open and transparent fashion too. As a nation, we are fortunate indeed to have vigilant women such as Emma Mhic Mhathuna and Vicky Phelan to demand that they do. Nothing less is required.

A word too about CervicalCheck, the national cervical screening programme which, in its relatively short time, has done good work to protect the health of the women of Ireland, notwithstanding the failings surrounding its related functions which have been exposed: In this controversy, it is evident that the HSE was most anxious to protect the core services of CervicalCheck, particularly its brand reputation.

However, reputation, in itself, of such a service should never have been put above the health and welfare of the women which used its service. That said, and underlined, it is important that women continue to avail of the services of CervicalCheck and do not allow this controversy to detract from the essence of the still valuable service it provides.

Sunday Independent

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