Gerard Howlin


Either you sit in inquisitor’s chair, or you become the object of inquiry

By accusing Health Minister Simon Harris of being a ‘little boy’ during the CervicalCheck scandal, Tony O’Brien placed himself in the schoolyard, writes Gerard Howlin

Either you sit in inquisitor’s chair, or you become the object of inquiry

By accusing Health Minister Simon Harris of being a ‘little boy’ during the CervicalCheck scandal, Tony O’Brien placed himself in the schoolyard, writes Gerard Howlin

That the tongue is the most dangerous muscle in the human body is a truth which came to mind last Sunday when I read the interview given to the Sunday Business Post by the former head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien.

It was substantive stuff and a serious mistake. Susan Mitchell, the ever-excellent health editor of that newspaper, quoted O’Brien as describing Health Minister Simon Harris as a weak minister, who is obsessed with media coverage and “runs scared of headlines”.

O’Brien said Harris behaved like “a frightened little boy” during the CervicalCheck controversy.

The mistake was that, in calling Harris “a boy”, O’Brien placed himself in the schoolyard. The unintended comedy is that, in opting for unimaginative abuse, righteous anger translates as self-pity.

Ironically, it manoeuvred several of the minister’s colleagues into his corner of the bike shed.

One senses that Harris doesn’t have many natural adherents among his Government classmates. It allowed him to double-down on the claim, curiously offered as someone positioning himself outside the organisation he is charged with leading, that he was asking the hard questions. In these situations, there is a simple choice. Either you sit in the inquisitor’s chair, or you become the object of the inquiry. In the game of musical chairs, O’Brien lost badly. That is the basic political story of CervicalCheck.

It’s a long time ago now, but the 1962 riposte of Jeremy Thorpe to Harald Macmillan across the House of Commons after a panicked British prime minister sacked seven colleagues in a night of the long knives that “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life” is as devastating now as then. It has the critical element of wit, which all great satire depends on.

Abuse can be effective if delivered in short frenetic bursts in private. A capacity to instil fear through one method or another — and there are several from which to choose — is an essential ingredient in effective leadership.

Benignity is generally best, but there always rare moments when something else is required. It is rarity which underlies the efficiency. The fear around Macmillan was that you never knew exactly where you stood with an apparently avuncular, mock-Edwardian gentleman.

What Thorpe called out spectacularly was that for all the longueur the prime minister could muster he was another self-serving shit when the chips were down. And worse, at a critical moment politically, he had panicked. So much for the great man who withstood fire in the trenches. Macmillan’s reputation never fully recovered.

Base abuse was, of course, implicit in Thorpe’s barb. But it was delivery with the rapier, not a blunderbuss, which carried it forward, and made it remembered. The great master of satire, Johnathan Swift, channelled anger and revenge through the ridiculous.

His Gulliver’s Travels became so harmless as to be a children’s story. Lilliput is biting satire on the little people of his own time. An ingenious use of satire currently in the HSE is news this week that money devoted last year to deal with increased pressure on resources came too late to be optimal. Lest the point be lost, the same is being repeated this year notwithstanding those such additional resources should be in place “by September at the latest”. In fact, a final plan is still awaited but is expected soon.

This is truly funny in the Swiftian sense. It brings to mind his A Modest Proposal. His sensible solution to poverty in Ireland then was that a “young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout”. If this were adopted now, presumably most of our social problems would cease. What Swift attacked, with the improbable suggestion of eating our young, were the schemes then in vogue for creating wealth as well as the use of figures to sum up the plight of people. We suffer one at a time, you see.

The substance of O’Brien’s interview is now unfortunately largely lost. It won’t get the attention it deserves. The fact of too many hospitals, too many Emergency Departments and the complete lack of clarity to me, the reader, of who is actually responsible were striking. As an exit interview, it is a case study on how not to do it.

If he had wanted to vent his anger, and he is entitled, a print interview was the wrong place for it. He put himself in the hands of an excellent correspondent, who treated him scrupulously. But anger requires the communication of emotional intelligence which dispersed comment in a print interview is not well designed to convey. A written piece in the first person would have been better. An interview on radio or television would have served better still.

As anyone who has followed O’Brien through endless hours at committee hearings or on radio knows, he is gutsy, combative, and informed. If you go out to take on a minister, you cannot allow yourself to be curated.

You need to be physically within reach of your intended audience to bring them with you.

The pity is that a substantive figure such as O’Brien finds his career as leader of the largest public service organisation in the State book-ended by two examples of wanton destructiveness. One surrounded his appointment. That included the wrecking-ball the then minister, James Reilly, took to the structures of the HSE in abolishing its board and in too casually losing the service of CEO Cathal Magee. It was a retrograde step. None of the plans it was presaged on ever materialised.

As O’Brien acknowledges, he was appointed by ministerial fiat, so he can hardly complain because he was done in on the same basis.

The other bookend is the continuing coarsening of language, where the use of the tongue is increasingly untrammelled by any convention. As coarse goes, his jibe at the minister was barely naughty. But in its lumpen inarticulacy it allowed its object to escape scot-free. What is left is the prerogative of being in charge without being responsible. By brazenly speaking up for the people, and claiming the raiment of bravery in doing so, ministers are instantly unburdened of being accountable to them. The public interest is left sinking in a deepening void between an administrative system that can’t be effectively held accountable and a political elect who have skilfully substituted advocacy for the people, in the collective sense, for traditional accountability in the personal sense.

The irony is it is not working for either. Frances Fitzgerald, Nóirín O’Sullivan, Tony O’Brien, and Denis Naughten are all names on a tombstone. There will be an afterlife, but life will never be the same. The failure to implement accountability as anything other than a cage fight after everything is spun out of control is no accountability at all.

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