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Andrew Lynch: Political cowardice, HSE excuses and the killing of a teen

The chickens are coming home to roost.

By confirming that emergency legislation is needed to force the HSE to reveal how many children have died while in State care, Brian Cowen has effectively admitted that his Government has completely lost control over one of its most basic functions.

This is fast becoming a resigning issue -- and if nobody within the HSE is prepared to take responsibility, a Government minister will have to pay the price instead.

The Taoiseach's plea that his hands are tied by legal difficulties simply doesn't wash.


It is two and a half months now since Minister for Children Barry Andrews set up an independent panel to investigate the issue, during which time the HSE has refused to hand over a single file.

The Government must have known about the problem all along -- but until this week when the media reported that the number of child deaths could be almost 10 times the official figure of 23, Cowen and his ministers chose to do nothing about it.

The Taoiseach's mumblings in the Dail about "validating the figures" and Andrews' weak television performances have done little to improve the situation.

While both men have failed to empathise with the public's anger, however, at least they have been prepared to face the cameras.

Mary Harney, whose official title is Minister for Health and Children, is once again nowhere to be seen -- despite the fact that as the Dr Frankenstein who created the bureaucratic monster of the HSE, she arguably bears more responsibility for this fiasco than anyone else.

Over five years since the old health boards were amalgamated into a single State agency, the complete failure of the HSE is clear for all to see.

Dominated by anonymous pen pushers and hospitals that act as independent republics, common humanity seems to come down at the very bottom of its list of priorities.

Its biggest critics, ironically enough, are Fianna Fail TDs who regularly complain that they cannot get HSE officials to supply them with even the most basic information.

The list of health scandals that have occurred on Harney's watch is now depressingly long.

At the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise in 2007, nine women were told they had cancer-- despite previously receiving the all-clear.


At Tallaght Hospital last March, while the Minister enjoyed a two-week St Patrick's Day trip to New Zealand, it was revealed that almost 58,000 X-rays had gone unread by consultant radiologists.

On both occasions, Harney managed to brazen it out by insisting that she was not personally responsible for doctors' mistakes.

Of course she isn't -- but the point is that as Minister for Health, she has created a system where nobody ever takes responsibility for anything.

The possible death of almost 200 children is now the ultimate indictment of that system -- and unless the HSE can quickly show that this figure is a wild exaggeration, even this famously thick-skinned politician must be shamed into taking some kind of action.

Since the Government had no problem with passing emergency legislation to rescue the banks, amending the 1991 Childcare Act should be a mere formality.

Barring accidents, the HSE should be handing over those files within a few days and the truth will finally emerge.

In the long run, however, we need to learn the ultimate lesson from this desperate tragedy -- which is that the entire structure of Irish healthcare needs to be dismantled and redesigned from the bottom up, this time with respect for human dignity as its core value.

For Daniel McAnaspie, Tracey Fay and every other innocent victim, all this hand-wringing comes far too late.

If their legacy is the final discrediting of the HSE and its replacement with something more humane, however, it can at least be said that they did not die in vain.