The cruel uncertainties inflicted on the women, and their families, caught up in the cancer scandal are the most distressing symptoms of the outrage. However, there are others that point to a deepening, society-wide challenge. This challenge must be resolved if the toll these scandals exact is to be brought under control.
One of the country’s most important public positions has remained unfilled since September. Another will be vacated no later than August. These vacancies occur in organisations exposed as inefficient, insular and die-hard resistant to reform. This reality must make them unattractive propositions for candidates with the abilities and ambition needed to at least offer the possibility of breaking the cycle of failure destroying public faith in these organisations.
Nóirín O’Sullivan, 52, became Garda commissioner in November 2014. Her appointment was not made in ideal circumstances. Less than three years later she resigned unexpectedly. Her successor, Acting Commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin, has said he does not wish to be appointed commissioner. It seems reasonable to ask why but not too difficult to imagine that he might see the position as a poisoned chalice — just as Ms O’Sullivan did when she resigned. Nevertheless, the search for the next commissioner continues. Experience suggests an internal appointment is as unlikely as it would be politically problematic.
Tony O’Brien, 55, has been director general of the health service since July 2013, having been director general
designate/acting CEO since August 2012. He will leave the HSE no later than August, just three months away. During his tenure, he was no stranger to controversy though the author of none. At times, he spent more time and energy firefighting than he could trying to lead the HSE to a better, brighter future. His position made that inevitable but it might not have been had one of his predecessors, or one of Nóirín O’Sullivan’s, been more successful in driving reforms. Legacy issues defined their potential and ultimately their legacies too.
No individual, no matter how forceful, imaginative, well-resourced and, most importantly, certain of political support no matter how dark prospects seem, can remake an organisation in those relatively short periods. That seems a Sisyphean challenge and must contribute to the failures that afflict the HSE, the gardaí and any other public organisation in a similar bind. Sadly, it seems to limit recruitment to political organisations as well.
In the Dáil yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed that women whose cancer diagnosis was delayed will be offered redress. He also promised a statutory inquiry. These are set-piece responses but unless real reform is achieved, by Mr O’Brien’s and Ms O’Sullivan’s successors and others like them there will, before long, be another scandal on another issue. The only way to break this cycle, and to get the best HSE and Garda leaders, is for the Government to commit to reform in an unprecedented way and to persist with it no matter how loudly self-interest groups squeal.