Harney was impressive in her day but her legacy leaves a lot to be desired

IN justifying his decision in 2007 to enter government Green Party leader John Gormley cited advice given to him during coalition negotiations by Mary Harney, a woman who at that stage had been a senior minister for 10 years (and who had been a junior minister earlier in her career).

Harney told him that even the worst day in government was better than the best day in opposition. I wonder if she still thinks that now after the disasters that have been experienced during this Fianna Fáil/Green/Independent (the latter being her, nominally at least given that she has shown more loyalty to Fianna Fáil than many in the party) coalition.

She had plenty of time to consider the last three and a half years of misery during her recent holiday in Thailand. Even if she was basking in considerable physical comfort — she’d want to be at a reported cost of up to €434 per night for rooms in the Peninsula Hotel she shared with her husband Brian Geoghegan — she must be tortured mentally by what she has participated in politically as the economy crumbled.

Harney will be remembered mainly for her failure to reform the health service, a job she bravely took on seven years ago but to which she has proved unequal. But there is much else that she should be remembered for and it does not do her proud.

What many will forget is her role in the economic crisis prior to taking on the job in health, not just as part of a government that made many bad decisions but her own direct role in doing things that proved very damaging.

While Charlie McCreevy rightly gets the blame for many things that went wrong during the pump-priming of the economic bubble, Harney should be remembered for her role in neutering the ability of the Central Bank to deal with crucial issues.

It was Harney, in her role as Minister for Enterprise and Employment, who insisted on the construction of the Financial Regulator’s office, ostensibly to provide greater protection for the consumer. McCreevy agreed reluctantly to the entreaties of his closest political friend and put in place what he described as a two-humped camel, the regulator supposedly independent but under the nominal control of the Central Bank.

The failure of regulation was central to our banking crisis, as we know now only too much to our cost. Harney was always an ideologically-driven politician. She believed in the role of free markets — which is fair enough — but she didn’t pay enough attention to the checks and balances that are required to stop participants running wild. She believed too avidly in self-correcting mechanisms and thought that things would be controlled merely by providing protections to consumers and encouraging vigorous competition.

Unfortunately, Harney was always one of the politicians closest to businessmen who wanted to let rip and who wanted politicians to “get out of their way” unless, of course, they wanted something from them.

One of Harney’s weaknesses was her delight in hanging out with such people. In 1999, I was editor of The Sunday Tribune when we revealed that Harney had holidayed in a French villa owned by businessman Ulick McEvaddy, a man who owns a substantial landbank (then and now) near Dublin Airport which he wanted to use for the construction of an airport terminal to rival DAA. Whether or not that would have been a good idea is a moot point but Harney unwisely left herself in a compromised position by accepting such hospitality (as did McCreevy).

Once she even got the government jet to bring her to Leitrim to open a new off-licence owned by a Progressive Democrat supporter. Last year, Harney went on a two-week visit to New Zealand. While there is a strong argument that sending ministers abroad for Saint Patrick’s Day attracts overseas investor interest you have to wonder just how much that applies to visiting the other side of the world.

Harney excused her absence from the country by claiming she was examining how New Zealand runs its health service but she’d had six years opportunity to do that around the world prior to that (and she has availed of that a year earlier when she’d spent two weeks in the US, including a visit to the Super Bowl). On that trip the State paid for Harney’s husband to travel with her.

While that may have fitted within the cabinet guidelines and have been approved by Cowen but it was hardly justifiable at a time when the State was already borrowing over €400 million a week and many people had their State funded entitlements reduced or withdrawn.

That Harney would think it appropriate that the State should pay for her husband’s inclusion on her delegation was indicative of a disconnected and jaded minister even a year ago.

She seemed to have learned little from the outrage caused by the taxpayer-funded jaunting of John O’Donoghue and his wife that had only months before brought about his downfall. Worse, it seems she had learned nothing from the controversy over €450 hair-dos in Florida years ago, when she went on a junket, again along with Geoghegan, then the chairman of FÁS? Did public outrage about her going to Super Bowl in Arizona the previous year count for nothing? Harney has always been cussed but whereas once this was a strength of hers it became a weakness in recent years; she will be remembered for appearing to have developed an arrogant disregard for what the public might think is right or wrong.

HOW much she spends of her own money is her own choice which is why her decision as to the quality and cost of her accommodation in Thailand is her own business. Why, however, she decided on a foreign holiday in early January at a time when the end of her time in government is close is somewhat mystifying. That during our time abroad we had a crisis in our accident and emergency departments of hospitals — with massive numbers on trolleys awaiting admission — and that the VHI announced enormous increases in its rates emphasises her distance from many of the events under her direct control.

It is hard to believe that Harney will offer herself for re-election in the forthcoming general election. She is not going to subject herself to the indignity of losing, especially when her chances of success in the Dublin mid-west three-seater must be slim.

She is likely to depart with quite a considerable pay-off too. She is the longest serving female TD in Dáil Eireann, first elected in June 1981. Her pay-off and pension from time as a TD and minister (for 13 years) will be even bigger than those to be enjoyed by Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey. She will be able to afford quite a lot of foreign travel.

But she may not necessarily enjoy her retirement. She has lived for politics and in her day she was impressive. She confronted the corruption in Fianna Fáil under Charles Haughey at personal cost. She had a genuine vision in the early days of the PDs. She is one of the best political speakers I’ve seen in action. But once she went back into government with Fianna Fáil, she ended up as an apologist for Bertie Ahern and an accomplice to Cowen in our dark days. It is not the legacy she could have had.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30 to 7pm.

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