Hospital finances fiasco puts a dent in FG’s economic credibility

Hospital finances fiasco puts a dent in FG’s economic credibility
The National Children’s Hospital costs overrun may have happened on the Minister for Health Simon Harris’ watch but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is assuring the public that they will love it once it is built. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

A coach and four has been driven through the image of fiscal virtue carefully constructed by the Taoiseach with the able assistance of his minister for finance. 

They can spin it any way they wish but the fiasco that has become the construction of the new National Children’s Hospital puts a deadly dent in their economic credibility.

Needless to say if they were pointing fingers in private the immediate target would be the Health Minister, Simon Harris. This extraordinary overspend has occured on his watch, but responsibility does not end with him.

During the meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday, where the issue was under examination, Labour’s health spokesman Alan Kelly put words on the thoughts of many watching when he said we were in “Fr Ted territory”. 

Minister Harris was in attendance, as well as others, including the Secretary General of his Department, Jim Breslin.

The problem is that sitcoms, especially that one, are meant to portray comedy, ineptness and a streak of the bizarre. 

This real life situation involves a much needed, long-awaited healthcare facility for the nation’s sick children and a runaway budget. The “cast of characters” include our most senior politicians, and civil servants. 

Opposition politicians put up a good show on Wednesday of trying to get answers on how and why this project has gone off the rails financially, but there were many times it was painful and frustrating to watch.

 

If going around and about the houses were a national sport, trophies could have been awarded at the end. We appear to have one of those scenarios where no one knew, but logic tells you lots of people simply had to have known in some form or other given the enormous sums involved. 

The arse-covering that is going on is simply epic. Parts of this story simply do not stack up, especially in terms of the lengthy delays in reporting the overruns up the line.

It’s all looking very Fine Gael, dragging on, with the higher ups insisting their virtue is intact, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. 

It would bring you back to those justice controversies, another area where the party sees itself as having a core competency. You do not need to be a keen student of politics to realise there is far more here than meets the eye and the story has a bit to play out.

For his part the Taoiseach appeared to be applying the sort of logic that usually relates to childbirth in his efforts to downplay the extent of it. 

You know how it goes — no matter how much pain a woman endures during the birth of her child once she lays eyes on the adorable little mite those pain-filled memories simply recede. 

Applying the Varadkar logic once the hospital is built we will love it and have it for up to 200 years.

 

Mr Varadkar told the Sunday Independent: “I predict it’s going to be a bit like the inter-urban motorways, the Luas or the new airport terminals in Dublin or Cork. There will be bad press, claims and counterclaims about costs and delays, but once open to the public, nobody will be sorry it was built and nobody will think it a poor investment.”

What weird and twisted logic from a man who has sold himself as an upstanding guardian of our national coffers, unlike the spendthrifts who went before and saw us in financial ruins. 

It sets an interesting example for future projects that are currently being lined up. He defended the cost as being over eight to 10 years and said estimates that it would cost between €1.75bn and €2bn were misleading. 

As if we could attach an ounce of credibility to his financial prediction after what has gone on.

Hospital finances fiasco puts a dent in FG’s economic credibility

Taking up the cudgel a few days later at that Oireachtas committee Minister Harris was describing the €1.4bn tag as a “reasonable” one. 

There is an element here of borrowing from the Brits’ playbook on Brexit in terms of retrofitting logic in a manner which actually serves to defy logic. 

Actually it is Brexit that has provided a firewall here politically in terms of this issue not already having resulted in the resignation of the minister for health or the collapse of the Government itself. 

There have been lots of people wondering recently what we spoke, read about or listened to prior to Brexit. 

Well here is one answer: we would have had even more and earlier coverage on the children’s hospital project if we weren’t so understandably Brexit fixated and that would have meant an even more intense and febrile political atmosphere.

Regina Doherty
Regina Doherty

The Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty, took another paragraph from the Fine Gael hymn book on the same day when she described the party as “painstakingly and excruciatingly prudent and boring when it comes to the economy”. 

This, of course, begs the questions of how many more billion euro we might be in a hole for with this hospital project if, for argument sake, FG, wasn’t so “excruciatingly prudent”. This particular project showed signs of overspending difficulties going back to 2017.

Then in the Dáil on Wednesday afternoon Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said: “We’re angry too.” It’s confusing isn’t it. 

"The Taoiseach says we will be thrilled when it’s built and forget the pain, the Health Minister says that it will be good value for money, the Social Protection Minister says FG would mind your communion money for you and the Housing Minister says, in fact, they’re all angry as well. Make sure you’re keeping up at the back there.

All the while as the Government crisis-manages this controversy, and keeps on top of Brexit, it also faces the absolute determination of the nurses to get their pay increases. 

Hospital finances fiasco puts a dent in FG’s economic credibility

Their determination shows no sign of abating — a three-day stoppage is threatened for next week.

The Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe finds himself in the slightly contradictory position of one minute answering questions on how the Government lost control of the hospital budget and the next on he must mind every cent and simply can’t afford to give the nurses a pay hike. 

He’s correct, he cannot afford to do so because an immediate queue would form of other sectors seeking the same.

I’ve written here before about Mr Donohoe’s well argued thoughts on the importance of the political centre holding, and how he says that a necessary pre-condition for progress is a consistency of approach; one where you decide on the appropriate economic and social model and have the political commitment and consensus to stick with it. 

We can presume that gross failure on financial oversight does not come under this heading and nor does picking apart your own pay deal.

For the moment the Government has the protection of Brexit, but whenever the general election comes around that shield will be removed. 

Recent events mean that the “you can trust us with your money” line will ring rather hollow.

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