ALISON O'CONNOR: Chasing rainbows is fine, but Simon Harris will need to be a fighter too

Simon Harris struck a surprisingly idealistic note at two summer schools. Picture: Photocall Ireland

LET’S make a decision and stick to it. That decision is to believe that our still relatively new Minister for Health is going to bring about positive and real changes in our health service, writes Alison O’Connor

Simon Harris does not have much senior political experience on his side, but he does have youth and enthusiasm and, dare I say it, a bit of gumption along with those.

He’s a man in demand, and this week he addressed the Parnell Summer School. To read parts of that speech would make one almost splutter at his apparent naivete.

The same could be said of a speech he gave a few weeks ago at the MacGill summer school in Co Donegal. He addressed this head-in-the-clouds matter head-on there: “Ah, isn’t he very naive, God love him,” he told the audience, anticipating their reaction to his words.

In his speech earlier this week he told his Co Wicklow audience that the unspoken and frequently-forgotten mission of every elected politician is to be a “rainbow chaser”. Yup, your read that right.

This rainbow-chasing is the unspoken and frequently forgotten mission of every elected politician, he believes, and the best way for our elected representatives to do this, is: “To seek the best and disregard the worst”.

“It’s the only way to survive modern politics, in my view. It’s the only way to deliver the dreams and hopes owned by each and every citizen in this great country.”

On health, he wants everyone to stop, as he describes it, worshipping and obsessing about the system and the process and the problems and instead to “face the patient”.

“Where we start with the rights of the citizen: to a healthy life, to an equal chance at a healthy life, to civilised care in the face of illness.”

He no longer wants a system that knows how to count trolleys, “but where the people on them feel like they don’t count.” The majority of Irish citizens understandably see this type of talk as bordering on ráiméis, given their own experiences of our health system.

The Minister acknowledged it is a massive challenge. It would be a positive one that needed energy and vision and hope and determination and optimism, he said. It was at that point he told the audience probably thinking how he was hopelessly naïve. But he rejects that thought process: “Without great objectives, no great achievements happen.”

With a record 530,000 people on hospital waiting lists this week, very great achievements are exactly what’s needed.

The Department has held on to the nickname of Angola, given to it by former Health Minister Brian Cowen. Added to that must be the reality that has faced each health minister in recent history; almost everyone else around the cabinet table behaving as if the current Minister for Health has Ebola or a similarly deadly virus, and a distance must be kept to keep themselves safe politically.

This approach has kept the health services in crisis, and reinforced for Irish citizens that it is a broken system that can never be fixed.

So maybe Simon Harris is a total greenhorn and a bit of a hippy with his talk of rainbow-chasing — while the rest of us are chasing ambulances, hospital beds and timely hospital appointments — but at least it is an approach with a difference.

During and after Dr James Reilly’s time in the Department of Health, it was said that one of his main problems was his lack of political experience at national level, given his relatively late entry into the Dáil.

Exactly the same argument could be made against Simon Harris. He is not yet 30, only in his second term in the Dáil and previously served as Minister for the Office of Public Works, which is an interesting job, but peanuts compared to the morass that is the health brief.

However, I think he is a quick learner. He suffers from the young-fogey-in-a-hurry thing, but that’s not the worst thing to be accused of.

It is to his advantage that he is seen as too young to be a leadership contender to replace Enda Kenny, because having to deal with that sort of strategising, while also managing the health brief, would almost inevitably lead to the day job suffering. Observing the Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, his relief at being out of Health, seems palpable. It’s easy to believe that Leo legged it out of Hawkins House without a backward glance, despite getting what appeared to be a demotion with the Department of Social Protection.

There is a school of spin that he apparently would have been stayed in the brief if he had been guaranteed an adequate budget and a commitment from the Taoiseach of a closer interest in, and a championing of, our health services. This was an important point. When is the last time anyone spotted End Kenny photographed officiating at anything significant to do with the health services?

Anyway, that is history and Leo has other concerns that don’t include hospital trollies. Simon Harris, who is largely well-regarded by his cabinet ministers, knows he needs to get his colleagues to overcome their fear of getting contaminated by the health services.

“We need a political consensus around health, we need all of our politicians to come together. Let’s accept that getting the health service right is one of the greatest societal challenges this country faces, and let’s get all our politicians to get together and try and come up with a plan.”

Success doesn’t just include getting cabinet colleagues on board but also those on the opposition benches. Just after his appointment, the minister wisely took on board a proposal driven by Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats of a special all-party committee on the future direction of the health services. The contrast to this new approach, which has been the Groundhog Day approach to date, was summed up pretty well by Minister Harris.

“Minister for Health X arrives in the Department, and tinkers around the edge of the system, and then is often shortly followed by another new Minister for Health, who tinkers with another bit of the system. We need to stop running the health service based on election cycles and individual ministerial ideology, and instead put in place once and for all, a 10-year strategy with cross-party political and societal buy-in to build, develop, reform and modernise healthcare services for the future.”

Now it’s not all about rainbows and fairies. In an interview with Morning Ireland on Tuesday on those extraordinary waiting list numbers, Mr Harris was heard to make this very pointed remark: “I am going to bring a degree of political leadership and oversight to this that has been missing... and is now needed.”

That sounded remarkably like a dig at Leo. It’s no harm. As well as the optimism, and blue-sky thinking, Simon Harris is going to need his elbows if he is to succeed as Minister for Health. We can only wish him the best of luck and a fair wind.

As well as the optimism, and blue-sky thinking, Simon Harris is going to need his elbows

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