Alison O'Connor: Irish citizens deserve better than Stephen Donnelly's calamities

When we look back, we will be stunned to think that the person in charge of the most important brief during a pandemic was seen as a bit of a doofus, writes Alison O'Connor
Alison O'Connor: Irish citizens deserve better than Stephen Donnelly's calamities

Doris Day as Calamity Jane, the nickname given to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly in some political circles. Picture: Courtesy Everett Collection

When I was first told it, it seemed too mean to repeat in public. But as time has gone on its accuracy has overtaken its cruelty. I’m referring to the nickname being bandied about in certain political circles for the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly: Calamity Jane.

One of the calmest people I know involved in politics told me they nearly threw something at the television on Monday night when the health minister single-handedly gave the parents of the nation a severe blood pressure spike.

He dropped the bombshell that the issues around students returning to school was not yet sorted and that Education Minister Norma Foley remained in negotiations with the teacher unions.

There isn’t rhyme or reason for what went on. The minister had just come from a Cabinet sub-committee on Covid. What’s more he told the presenter, when she asked about the return to school, that just before coming on the show he double-checked what he could say on the issue “and what I was told is the talks are still ongoing”.

On Tuesday a spokesman for Mr Donnelly told this newspaper: "The minister mis-spoke — he was advised before going on air that union officials were going back to their executives with the proposals and understood this to be that the process was not complete."

 History will not look back kindly on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly's performance during the pandemic.

 History will not look back kindly on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly's performance during the pandemic.

As I understand it the teacher unions had left the Department of Education that afternoon. The issue that did remain on the table was to do with the return of some children with special needs to mainstream classes and teachers requesting time to settle the rest of the class once school returned, before these students would come back. 

There is a massive difference between an issue like that, admittedly highly important to the children affected and their parents, and question marks over the widespread return of classes.

Labour leader Alan Kelly is prone to the hyperbolic but it was difficult to disagree with his assessment that the minister’s appearance on the Claire Byrne Live show was “scary”.

Communications disaster

It was all the more shocking when anyone with an ounce of wit would tell you that everyone is living on their nerves at this point. There had already been loud and lengthy complaints about poor communications from the Government, where cabinet members were seen to be inconsistent and inaccurate and speaking on the hoof about what might or might not happen with restrictions.

Had the Monday night Donnelly appearance been a one-off it might have been in some way excusable, but there is a pattern here. The minister has frequently been accused of selecting interviews, and when he does the calamities just pile up, on everything from the dangers of trampolining to what are the exact rules when you are isolating at home.

When we look back on this time, with the perspective of a number of years having passed, we will be stunned to think that the person in charge of the most important brief during a pandemic was essentially seen as a bit of a doofus, with a flaky reputation 

How did this happen? How did it make any sense? Those will be the type of questions asked by academics and students. What will the answer be?

 Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health, has warned the Minister for Health about his public statements on Covid.

 Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health, has warned the Minister for Health about his public statements on Covid.

Only a few weeks ago he started a thumbs-up emoji meme on Twitter. This followed a report that in October the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, texted the minister to say the number of Covid-19 cases in Dublin was on the rise and to advise him to be cautious in public messages about the virus in the capital. The minister had said in an interview that transmission in the capital was slowing and the outlook appeared “positive”. A few days later the CMO repeated the message in a text saying the R number in Dublin had increased. The response from the minister: a thumbs up emoji. Later that day when he tweeted on vaccines the response from the Twitterati was rapid — thousands of people replied using a single image: the thumbs up emoji.

It’s very difficult to get to the bottom of what is going on. Clearly Stephen Donnelly is possessed of a certain level of intelligence; at this stage he has built up a certain amount of political experience. One political source said he was certainly not incompetent but that it was impossible to fathom why he behaves as he does. A Department of Health source said he was “a nice fella, decent company” but it was clear he did not prepare for media interviews.

Why was he picked for the job?

The outstanding question has been as to why Taoiseach Micheál Martin picked this man to do this highly important job at such a time. There were doubts about Stephen Donnelly’s grasp on health policy matters for some time, and these were really highlighted during the general election campaign last year. Added to all of this has been the absurdity of a Department which has traditionally been viewed as dysfunctional anyway, being utterly overburdened. The latest job for this struggling Department and its struggling minister to handle is the issue of hotel quarantine.

On a broader view the public performances of the minister mean that the HSE and its chief executive, Paul Reid, have overtaken the Department in terms of authority. Dr Holohan can be seen to stand well apart as head of Nphet. Paul Reid now has a far higher and more assured media presence than the minister.

Within Fianna Fáil there is a lack of warmth for Donnelly where he is seen as a cuckoo in the nest after joining from the Social Democrats in 2017, apparently after being promised a cabinet position by Micheál Martin if the situation arose.

There would surely have been more attention paid to the latest Donnelly snafu except that all attention turned to the launch of the new Covid plan, 'The Path Ahead' on Tuesday. It is not easy to be Minister for Health in a pandemic. The pressure has no doubt been added to with the recent erection of a 6ft security fence after “a number of incidents” outside the home the Minister shares with his wife and three young children. Such thuggery is inexcusable at a politician’s home but all the more so during a high-pressure time like this.

But on a wider level — whether it is to do with vaccines, quarantine, hospital waiting lists, or how to deal with letters from Nphet — Irish citizens deserve someone in the role of Minister for Health who has their confidence and respect. Increasingly that cannot be said of Stephen Donnelly.

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