Friday 20 September 2019

Minister for Health must be the worst job in the country

Colm Lambert
Colm Lambert

By Colm Lambert

Yours truly was but a gorsoon of First Holy Communion age when the charlatan Charles J Haughey first became Taoiseach back in 1979, and was more interested at the time in the real Action Man than in the actions of the man in finagling himself into that position.

Such was the divide in popular opinion in the tumultuous years that followed though, that there was interest in politics even in Third and Fourth Class circles in National School around the time of all those elections 1981 and '82. There were young lads taking up sides on the Haughey/Fianna Fáil v Fitzgerald/Fine Gael divide like it was Liverpool v Manchester United, and there was one chap in particular whose pencil case was plastered with 'Vote Fianna Fáil' stickers and who ran around the playground at lunchtime singing 'Arise and Follow Charlie'.

Some of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring was public knowledge at the time and some was being played out behind closed doors, where it remained for many years until the whole country - just like we schoolboys of the time - became older and wiser and more suspicious. And now, of course, the whole shebang is being served up as entertainment, with the RTE mini-series 'Charlie' on Sunday nights, featuring fall-outs, murky deals, Charvet shirts, Terry Keane, and everything else we've come to know about the man.

The first half of the first episode centred around how Charlie saw off George Colley in the Fianna Fáil leadership battle of '79, primarily through plámásing cumanna up and down the country on the 'chicken and chips' circuit, and doing deals with sitting TDs on what ministries they might be assigned when Haughey assumed power.

Séan Doherty wanted Justice. Charlie McCreevy wanted Finance ('McCreevy for Finance,' sneered the Charlie character, in a premonition of the state McCreevy would leave us in when he finally got that job in the noughties instead). Brian Lenihan was happy with Foreign Affairs.

But nobody was asking for what was then Charlie's own job: Minister for Health. Then, like now, it was the poisoned chalice. Although change comes to everything else, that's the one great constant of the Irish political scene.

Brian Cowen famously referred to the job as 'like Angola', because there were landmines everywhere, and any one of them could go off at any time. Mary Harney stuck it out for seven years, God bless her, but was glad in many ways when her time was finally up. And now, the current Minister, Leo Varadkar, must also be gazing into the future and wondering when there might be a re-shuffle or election or something else to get him out of the job, because he's really on a hiding to nothing these days.

The overcrowding crisis is the latest scandal, and the Minister had the misfortune to be away on holidays when things reached their worst: never a good place to be, in the eyes of the tabloids in particular. 'Leo lies on beach while others lie on trolleys' is not the kind of headline he'd ever go seeking.

Then he had to spend the majority of the week answering questions on how the problem was to be tackled, and why - if it had been foreseen, as he claimed at one point - more had not been done to try prevent things becoming so bad in the first place.

He cut the jib of a more and more frustrated man each day, although in fairness, things did improve by the time the weekend came round, as the number of people on trolleys nationwide dropped from more than 600 at point to 'only' around 200 on Sunday. But even then, the Minister can't wallow in the glow of good news, because it's really not good news at all that there are still hundreds of people in our hospitals without a proper bed. And even as he agrees that things are unacceptable, he says that nobody should be on a trolley 'for more than nine hours'.

If nine hours on a mattress on wheels, most likely in a corridor, is officially considered acceptable, then the problem isn't ever going to go away,

But - and here's the crux of the matter - agreeing that a problem exists is the easy part. Coming up with a solution is infinitely more difficult. And unless somebody can come up with a solution that doesn't involve trying to pump in millions and billions of extra euro that the State simply doesn't have, then the healthcare system will always be our biggest problem area.

That means the Minister for Health - whoever he or she may be at any given time - will constantly have the duty of having to answer for crisis and scandal galore, and won't ever come out of it looking good. It must be the worst job in the country.

Wexford People