MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Wrestling with his conscience has been a constant since John Halligan took up role

John Halligan retaining his seat at the last general election. Picture: Patrick Browne

John Halligan is simply not suited to the job of being in government, writes Michael Clifford

John Halligan must be exhausted from wrestling with his conscience. It’s one thing to have to compromise on one’s principles for the sake of power, making internal accommodations for a bigger political project. But how much worse it is to be told that there will be nothing for the folks back home.

Halligan’s torturous wrestling has been a constant since he took up his role as the minister of state for training and skills. He’s like a man who’s suffering from altitude sickness, unable to come to terms with the rarefied altitude of executive power, when he was so accustomed to a laid-back life down at ground level.

First there was his discomfort with supporting the Government against Mick Wallace’s private member’s bill on abortion. He, along with his partisans, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath, voted against the Government. “There’s a new Dáil and votes are supposed to be taken on matters of conscience and I think that is what the Government should do,” he said at the time.

The votes of Halligan and his fellow Independent Alliance ministers didn’t matter a whit in relation to the Bill, but it was a matter of principle. These are men of principle. When they are bought by Fine Gael for their support, they don’t stay bought.

Then there was the problem over the appeal against the EU Competition Commissioner’s ruling on Apple’s €13 billion in back taxes. Here, Halligan was on sounder ground. Michael Noonan outlined the Government’s position before consulting the constituent parts of the Government, and Halligan made his displeasure known. He said it was his personal view that Apple should pay the €13bn.

 Independent TD’s Sean Canney, Finian McGrath, Shane Ross, John Halligan, Kevin “Boxer” Moran at Leinster House. Picture: Collins
Independent TD’s Sean Canney, Finian McGrath, Shane Ross, John Halligan, Kevin “Boxer” Moran at Leinster House. Picture: Collins

His heretofore left-wing credentials were also offended by the positioning of the Fine Gael people. If he had been in opposition, there is little doubt but that Halligan would have voraciously demanded that the money be taken immediately and ploughed into ailing services.

The latest crisis to flood the conscience of the Waterford TD is of a different standard altogether. This exposes Halligan’s heretofore tortured attempt to accommodate his principles as little more than a sham. This is about parish pump politics, in which the politician’s guiding focus is to ask not what he can do for his country, but what his country can do for his constituency.

Halligan’s price for power included a commitment to make improvements in his local Waterford general hospital’s cardiac care. This was to come in the form of a second ‘cath lab’ — a dedicated cardiac unit — within the hospital.

Despite their desperation to get back into Government, Kenny, Noonan, et al couldn’t be seen to be messing around with finite health resources for power. They agreed to conduct an independent review of the need for the facility. In the normal run of things, these reviews throw up the answer that is expected. Not this time. The review concluded that there was no case for an extra cath lab in the south-east.

This is fundamental stuff. Earlier this week it was revealed that people in need of brain surgery in Beaumount Hospital are being turned away because of lack of resources. The clinical director of the centre was quoted as criticising politicians who tried to pressurise hospitals into prioritising specific patients, irrespective of clinical need.

 Protestors march in 2012 over the downgrading of services at Waterford Regional Hospital. Picture: Patrick Browne
Protestors march in 2012 over the downgrading of services at Waterford Regional Hospital. Picture: Patrick Browne

Halligan’s Waterford hospital dilemma is an example of this stuff writ large. Clinical professionals decide on the basis of need where resources must be directed.

A review has decided that there is no justification for the extra cardiac unit in Waterford. Anything that attempts to interfere with that is playing with people’s lives.

Why should a sick person in Donegal, or Dublin’s inner city, or West Cork be denied health resources because Fine Gael require John Halligan’s vote?

As might be expected, Halligan blames the review, claiming it is “fatally flawed”. The only thing that is fatally flawed was his decision to enter government. He’s simply not suited to the job.

Interestingly, Fianna Fáil was quick out of the blocks to announce that if they return to Government, Waterford will get sorted out, irrespective of clinical priorities. “When we are in Government we will ensure that cardiac care in Waterford is strengthened and improved,” the party’s health spokesman Billy Kelleher said.

That’s the state of politics as we know it, and there is zero prospect of the problems within the health service being properly addressed while politicians continue to undermine clinicians in attempting to allocate resources.

Meanwhile, a separate “independent” review is underway to decide which garda stations closed in the last few years should be reopened. This review was set up reportedly at the behest of Shane Ross, who has long protested against the closure of the Stepaside station in the heart of his south Dublin constituency.

The smart money says that the review will do what’s expected of it and independently conclude that Stepaside must reopen. But wouldn’t it be great fun if it missed the cut? Wouldn’t be great to watch another man of principle wrestle with his conscience to determine what is best for his country?

If Halligan goes

Independent Alliance TD John Halligan may not jump ship, but that doesn’t mean Fine Gael isn’t thinking of giving him a nudge. Who might Enda Kenny turn to if a position suddenly needs filling?

Noel Grealish:

The Galway West TD is, on the surface, exactly what Fine Gael needs to help shore up the Government. Calm, relatively uncontroversial, and centre-right leaning, he would be a far less complex politician to work with than Mr Halligan.

The former leader of the PDs once toyed with joining Fianna Fáil, and given the fact he abstained on the Dáil vote in May to make Enda Kenny taoiseach, he would not be out of place in the current coalition.

However, Mr Grealish’s five-seat constituency already has two Fine Gael TDs — Hildegarde Naughten and Sean Kyne — and would risk one losing out come the next election.

Dr Michael Harty:

The first-time Clare TD and practising GP is another option being discussed in Leinster House right now.

While he, like Mr Halligan, would understandably come with some health service reform preconditions — chief among them drastic improvements in rural GP services for rural western areas — this is already something the Government is seeking to address.

Stephen Donnelly:

The former Social Democrat made it clear on Tuesday he is willing to take calls, and notably chose to abstain during Wednesday’s Dáil vote on the Apple appeal.

However, some stumbling blocks persist.

Chief among them is the fact the Wicklow TD’s constituency already contains two Fine Gael TDs — Health Minister Simon Harris and Andrew Doyle — while such a move may also portray him as power hungry.

For now, staying out of power and waiting for a better climate after the next election may be Mr Donnelly’s best strategy.

Best of the rest:

Given their previous involvement in spring’s government formation talks, Maureen O’Sullivan, Michael Healy Rae, Michael Fitzmaurice, Green Party TDs Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin, Mattie McGrath, and Michael Collins could all conceivably fill Mr Halligan’s position.

-Fiachra Ó Cionnaith


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