Health plan at risk as Smith breaks ranks again

THE future of the Government's blueprint for the reform of the health services is in jeopardy after an unprecedented repeat attack on its merits by a senior minister.

Only hours after the Taoiseach told the Dáil that Defence Minister Michael Smith totally accepted the findings of the Hanly Report, Mr Smith went on RTÉ last night to again voice his opposition to the reforms, as they applied to his constituency. His dramatic departure from the collective Cabinet decision last night left colleagues with red faces and led to calls from the opposition for Mr Smith's resignation.

It also provoked an angry response from Fianna Fáil backbenchers who expressed fears that his outburst may lead to more local-based attacks on the plan from TDs that may ultimately lead to the radical reform package being hopelessly diluted.

Mr Smith's comments to RTÉ last night went further in their criticism than his original comments the previous day and seemed to undermine one of the key measures in Hanly, that local hospitals be downgraded to allow acute services be transferred to regional centres of excellence. Two hospitals, Ennis and Nenagh (the latter in Mr Smith's constituency) are being downgraded as part of a pilot project.

In his RTÉ interview, Mr Smith seemed to contradict that key proposal: "There is no need to sacrifice the people who live in outlying areas, who have poor roads and are a long distance from the services and who feel threatened and worried.

"There is no need to sacrifice them on the altar of the Hanly Report," he said.

The Taoiseach's spokeswoman last night denied that Mr Smith's latest intervention was tantamount to breaking ranks with collective Cabinet responsibility or could be characterised as dissent. She said he has problems with issues pertaining to his own locality. She did acknowledge, however, that it was unfortunate when people used emotional language such as had been used by the minister.

The Taoiseach was unaware that Mr Smith would give another high-profile interview for the second-day running. He also met a number of Fianna Fáil backbenchers before flying to Italy to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Earlier in the Dáil the Taoiseach had emphatically stated that Mr Smith "totally, totally accepts the Hanly Report". His backing of Mr Smith was greeted with prolonged guffaws from the opposition.

The Taoiseach had spoken to Mr Smith in advance of yesterday's sitting in the Dáil and had got assurances from him that he would be fully supportive of Hanly.

The Taoiseach acknowledged that in the course of the implementation of the report, the Government expected a lot of debate on a complex issue that would affect every town and county in Ireland. Labour leader Pat Rabbitte portrayed the latest intervention by Mr Smith as the most direct challenge yet to the authority of the Taoiseach.

"Minister Smith seems keen to establish a new principle of government - NIMCY - not in my constituency."

Green Party health spokesman John Gormley also called on the Taoiseach immediately to sack Mr Smith. "This is further evidence that the Hanly Report will not be implemented."

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