IVAN YATES: The wrong person has resigned in row over new children’s hospital

ONE of the more strident sayings in our period of construction mania between 2004 and 2007 was “build it and they will come”.

The mood music of the time gave us elaborate trophy designs such as Dublin’s Metro (morth and west), Terminal Two at Dublin Airport, Thornton Hall prison and the National Children’s Hospital. The wish list also included the Bertie Bowl. Several thousand seats at the Aviva Stadium (costing €400m) can’t be sold, yet Bertie wanted a third mega stadium at Abbotstown – deluded grandeur.

The prevailing political culture was limitless ambition to deliver the biggest, best and most expensive plans. Our economic miracle deserved no less.

The resignation of Philip Lynch as chairman of the development board of the National Paediatric Hospital should start alarm bells ringing about the viability at the Mater site project. As an independent, non-executive director of One51 over the past 18 months, I may be accused of having a personal bias in this matter. Lynch is the CEO of that company. My observation of him, at close hand, is that he is a seasoned entrepreneur with exceptional business skills. His track record of commercial success cannot be questioned.

Between 1983 and 2005, he developed the IAWS Group plc from an agricultural business into an international corporate giant, now Aryzta. This yielded very significant returns to shareholders. He is also a director of the drinks firm C&C and FBD insurance.

He is not a politician. He would hire PR people to keep him out of the papers rather than seek column inches. He lets the balance sheet do the talking. He is uncompromising, extremely tough, to the point of being ruthless. His chairmanship of the children’s hospital board over the past three and a half years was on a pro-bono basis – without reward and interfering with his hectic schedule. He is a pro-establishment guy, irrespective of which political party was in government.

We have had our disagreements, without being disagreeable. I have not discussed details of this controversy with him. I don’t purport to represent his views. He has no background in medical politics. Therefore he has no vested interest in the hidden agendas of any individual hospital or its management or consultants.

As an honest broker, having given of his time voluntarily, why would he seek to cause trouble or embarrassment to the minister or Department of Health? He must have the most serious misgivings about the Eccles Street site in the centre of Dublin or feels the financing of the project is unsustainable. It is completely out of character for him to be a loose cannon or lacking in determination.

His resignation statement of last week was terse and specific, listing five issues of fundamental difference between him and Minister Mary Harney. She insisted she had effectively fired him. The details of the parting of the ways are unimportant.

This is the same minister who has been on a long political journey. Having started out as a youthful protégée of Jack Lynch, fresh from college, she was appointed to the Seanad. Her courage and independence led her to being the strongest disciple of Des O’Malley. As a founder member of the PDs, her characteristics were anti-establishment. Nowadays, after 13 years as a senior minister, she is the polar opposite.

Hubris Harney is unrecognisable from her persona of 30 years ago. Having waxed lyrical on behalf of the taxpayer, insisting on transparency, accountability and integrity, she is now the epitome of Town Hall politics. In 1997, she inherited a current budget surplus and a growing economy. She will surely leave office next year having presided over the biggest explosion of public expenditure growth, synonymous with excess and waste.

Harney’s global junketeering is legendary. Her tenure in the Department of Enterprise facilitated the nightmare that is FÁS. Having preached a private sector ethos, she promulgated public partnership unaccountability. She now seeks to preserve her legacy at Health with this white elephant.

Harney and Cowen have stated that it is not within the scope of the hospital development board to revisit the Government decision of site location.

Ireland is a different country now to that which spawned this proposal in 2006. Harney says €1bn has to be cut off the health budget next year. The Jack and Jill Foundation is facing closure in providing assistance to parents to mind their seriously ill infants at home, due to lack of resources. The property world has been turned upside down. Philanthropic charitable fundraising across all sectors has declined drastically due to the chill winds of recession.

These factors have convinced Philip Lynch that there are now serious doubts in delivering this hospital.

Harney refuses to countenance reality. There is little prospect of voluntary donors stumping up €110m. Gala fundraising dinners supported by developers and financiers are unviable. The maximum achievable in a best case scenario is €40m from benevolent sources. €90m has been earmarked to come from car parks, retail units and private clinics. How will rental income or parking revenue be securitised, ie, payable upfront? A €200m black hole exists in a context of diminishing public health funding. Instead of addressing the substance of Lynch’s disagreements, she sought to rubbish his role in meeting various interested parties, such as Noel Smyth.

Around 1980, when Beaumont hospital had been built, it remained unoccupied for a lengthy period due to conflicts with consultants and demands for additional current expenditure costs. The €650m capital cost of this project may require a further €150m to get it functioning. Lynch also referred to the lack of clarity about governance proposals for the new hospital. This suggests the vested interests in Crumlin, Tallaght and Temple Street have yet to finalise their merger terms.

DOES the ethos of the Sisters of Mercy imply a limitation on future stem cell research? These issues collectively conspire to create an unanswerable case for a political review of the plan and the proposed site location.

The arguments in relation to traffic congestion and inaccessibility could prove deadly for the 5% of emergency cases that are time critical.

If Metro North is deferred or axed, additional problems will be encountered by parents with seriously ill kids. Bord Pleanála may yet determine that a city centre location, with limited parking and crowded adjacent Croke Park events, is not optimal for such a vital facility.

The limited size of the site prevents future expansion and requires extra cost due to deep underground development and its vertical height. Funny money and best practice urban development could scupper the scheme.

The biggest backer has always been the man from the cupboard. Bertie Ahern not only was the local constituency TD, but also previously worked in the Mater hospital as an accountant. This Government’s mandate to govern is draining away with each passing day. Their credibility and authority to decide on long-term building projects is open to critical analysis. The next government should not be handcuffed to a legacy based on former limitless budgeting. The late Maurice Neligan was right to claim that Harney’s vanity is at issue. The wrong person has resigned.


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