Poor accountability at core of CervicalCheck scandal

Accountability for grave errors is rare but don’t expect things to change any time soon, says Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

“Tony O’Brien will resign with the full terms of his contract honoured.”

That was the word from senior government sources on Thursday night once news of his resignation emerged. No element of sanction or penalty.

This was a classic illustration of accountability Irish-style and it showed who the true untouchables in our society really are.

We saw it in the banks after they came crawling looking to be saved by the taxpayer. Despite requiring a bailout totalling €64bn, no one was fired. People left on big packages, complete with golden handshakes.

We saw it in the top of the civil service. Many of the top officials who were in place when the country went off a cliff also left with full honours.

Others, including top officials in the Department of Finance, got enhanced pension top-ups on their way out the door “in recognition of their service”. 

There are those who get rewarded with big plum jobs in Europe after they mess up here. Then of course there was the €70m pension pot, paid for by the state, to cover the retirement funds of Brian Cowen’s disastrous Cabinet.

You see, in Ireland, our justice is served in an altogether different and poisonous way. People who are deemed to have messed up but who escape formal or court sanction become social pariahs.

Look at former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The one-time unassailable leader of the country became a figure of public anger where he was attacked on the street and in a pub in Dublin city centre.

Look at Sean Fitzpatrick. The former Anglo Irish Bank chief Sean Fitzpatrick, acquitted on all charges in his trials, was reportedly placed under Garda protection after receiving death threats.

Back to the present.

The current raging political scandal involving the handling of false negative smear tests cuts to the core of how poor accountability leads to people becoming untouchable.

On Thursday night, hours before O’Brien fell on his sword, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone bemoaned the lack of anyone being held to account in the public service.

She said it is almost impossible to fire anyone in the public service or State bodies and if this scandal had happened in another jurisdiction Mr O’Brien would already have gone.

“All ministers, this could happen to any of us and we would have to face a similar kind of decision, it’s very very, very difficult to make that kind of a decision. It’s very hard to get rid of anyone in the public sector,” she said.

She is right. We don’t sack anyone. Even in the face of the most egregious wrongdoing.

I’ll give you an example. The departure of Dr Grainne Flannelly as the clinical director of the CervicalCheck screening programme was heralded as progress. “This was the first time someone has left in such a manner,” said one minister to me.

Flannelly stood down “with immediate effect” following the controversy over delayed cancer diagnosis linked to smear tests, which began with the settlement in the Vicky Phelan case. 

Dr Flannelly had advised a Limerick gynaecologist to file some audited smear-test results rather than to tell women in certain cases that all-clear smear tests they had received years earlier were wrong. Yet, she was not sacked. She resigned.

To those within the system, this was a new day.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday said a cornerstone of being a medical practitioner is to put the patient first. However, a reading of the three memos, published by the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday, shows the opposite happened.

 

We know that O’Brien knew from early 2016 that a firestorm was brewing and that a reactive media strategy was being devised.

“A communications protocol has been prepared for consulting clinicians to address their questions,” the memo read.

However, most alarming, the memo advises a cessation of communications to the doctors of patients until legal advice returns. 

It stated: “Next steps: pause all letters; await advice of solicitors; decide on the order and volume of dispatch to mitigate any potential risks and continue to prepare reactive communications response for a media headline that ‘screening did not diagnose my cancer’.” 

However, the memo made no reference to the care of the women affected — women who were kept in the dark. We know now that that memo was seen by O’Brien in March 2016 and it was sent on to the Department of Health. We know from a statement it made it as far as the desk of the chief medical officer Tony Holohan.

However, for some strange reason, these memos were never made available to Simon Harris or Leo Varadkar when he was health minister. Varadkar told reporters yesterday that he and Harris only became aware of the memos at the same time as everyone else. So, they were kept in the dark by their own officials. Why?

Varadkar said departments such as Health and Justice handle over 500,000 documents in a year, but said he would have liked to have known. 

Such questions have to be answered. We are told that the Scally scoping exercise and the subsequent Commission of Investigation will get to the truth of the matter but surely we cannot wait for that.

He and Harris were pressed about whether the chief medical officer will not be sacked nor will be asked to even step back pending the outcome of a Commission of Investigation.

Harris said he was “highly annoyed” but real accountability is not on the cards.

However, even after all the events of Thursday, it was clear that not everybody was listening to the impact the scandal was having on public confidence.

Rather than stay quiet, O’Brien took to Twitter to launch a attack on TDs after he was forced to resign as HSE chief executive.

O’Brien said he hoped the children of TDs questioning him at Oireachtas committee meetings over handling of the health service do not watch their public performances.

“When I appear in public, say at a committee I conduct myself against a simple standard. Would I be happy for my children or my mother to see how I behave?” 

Mr O’Brien said. “I sometimes look across the room and hope their children will never see and hear how they behave,” he said.

This has been a shocking week as to how the women of Ireland, our mothers, our wives, our daughters, our friends have been maltreated.

We are left with another inquiry, which will produce another report after several months.

Will anything change? Don’t hold your breath.


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