Health is the disease that might kill this coalition

Health is the disease that might kill this coalition
Dumping Health Minister Simon Harris would solve little of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s problems. Picture:

THE Department of Health is an out-of-control monster that could “destroy” this Government.

That’s the stark admission of a senior government figure about the state of things politically.

His own colleagues’ belief that he can deliver the miracle cure is clearly ebbing away, as they are briefing against him.

Of course, the past week has been dominated by the Brexit chaos in London and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s trip to the White House, but certain people at the top tier of Government hold increasing fears that the health quagmire could sink the entire ship and dump Fine Gael out of office.

“The three or four biggest crises in the past year have all been health: CervicalCheck, budget overrun, children’s hospital and nurses’ strike. It’s all health, it all comes back to health,” said one senior Government person based in Merrion Street.

“It is very hard to defend, on or off the record. We have taken a knock. I think we have taken a good few knocks. But the knocks are all health. It is not about spending from anywhere else,” they continued.

“Health is like this monster that is gobbling up all the resources, but is also gobbling up all the political credibility. That could not end well for anyone. That could end badly for the Government. Health is quite capable, I think, of destroying this government. The Department of Health is just dangerous, really dangerous.”

Other Merrion Street insiders pointed to the fact that Health Minister Simon Harris’ officials are not that keen on him, because they feel he hung them out to dry during the CervicalCheck scandal last year.

“The Department of Health is really problematic and that relationship between them and the HSE has never been sorted. And, also, I don’t think the relationship between Harris and his department is good. But I don’t think, the sense I get, there is a big gap between the political side and the officials’ side down there,” another senior Government figure told me.

“The officials are always waiting in the long grass and they are so powerful, so you do need their cooperation, if you want to get anything done. It is a really, really big problem. If health wasn’t there, we’d be guaranteed to win the election. The problem is that health just makes the Government look incompetent and the incompetence emanates from health,” the Government insider said.

Now, that is a lot to take in.

So, the view of Merrion Street is that Harris is not getting on with his officials and his department is dangerous. That is bad and could destroy this Government. Now, tensions between Merrion Street (ie, Government Buildings, the Department of Finance, and the Department of Public Expenditure) and the Department of Health are nothing new.

Back in 2014, when James Reilly (remember him) was still health minister and was trying to push his plan to introduce universal health insurance, the Finance view was that Reilly’s costings were so ludicrous they “threatened the financial viability of the State.”

But it says a lot about the cohesion of this government, fragile and in a minority position, that Merrion Street again feels the need to distance itself from Harris and his dysfunctional department.

It has become a recurring theme of Varadkar’s tenure to pass the buck to save his own hide and it is clear that while not everyone in Merrion Street feels this way, a sufficient amount of people are happy to scapegoat Harris, if only to insulate the boss.

For example, Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister, has seen his halo of fiscal prudence take a serious bashing since his last budget, in which he approved significant increases in spending.

His role in allowing major cost overruns at the National Children’s Hospital brought him into the firing line, only for him to appear to throw Harris under the bus.

Last month, Donohoe said it would have been “helpful” to know about the overspend at the National Children’s Hospital as it emerged.

“[It would have been] helpful to be aware of this issue as it was developing, but Minister Harris was doing across that period what he should have been doing, which was to understand the scale of the issue.

“If Minister Harris had come to me earlier, the first thing I would have asked was, ‘can you quantify the scale of the issue?’ and this is what he was doing across this period,” he said.

What is happening to Harris now has happened before.

When Reilly was found out as minister, he, too, was moved on; his departure from health was a fait accompli.

The routine of health ministers has become sadly familiar: New minister is given time to get their feet under the table. A major scandal erupts and the goodwill towards said minister evaporates.

Pressure mounts, until said minister either resigns or is moved on to less dangerous pastures. And by moving the minister, the political boil has been lanced, but the process of reforming the health service collapses and must be restarted.

As he himself was placed in health by Enda Kenny, Varadkar kept Harris in health expecting him to fail (the two are not close). But Varadkar, even if he wanted to, cannot afford to sack Harris before an election.

Having already lost Frances Fitzgerald as his Tánaiste, and Denis Naughten from the Cabinet, Varadkar cannot afford any more losses, or he risks collapsing his dying administration.

Dumping Harris would solve little.

Surely, history has taught us that rotating health ministers every two to four years has not worked.

If my insider’s view of the department is true, and it is a dangerous place, then surely isolating the minister is not the way to go. Surely, the opposite is the case. Place it into special care. Have far more rigorous oversight of the goings on there from within Government Buildings. Or, if it is that, do what New Zealand did. Shut it down and launch a new department. Harris, even at a young age, has shown a remarkable ability to handle complex issues effectively, most notably the passage of the Eighth Amendment referendum.

But his handling of the children’s hospital has begun the mutterings of malcontent from within his own ranks.

As Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace: “It’s too easy to criticise a man when he’s out of favour, and to make him shoulder the blame for everybody else’s mistakes.”

The problems in health are not just Harris’ to sort and seeking to isolate him has exposed just how fragile cohesion within Government actually is. And that is dangerous.

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