SHAUN CONNOLLY: Squeals of outrage at porkies over who gets the bacon

WERE the dogs of war unleashed this week by a jittery Government lashing out as it risks completely losing control over the escalating crisis in health funding?

It is certainly curious that, so soon after the chiefs of four of the country’s biggest hospitals took the unprecedented step of going public with their concern that cutbacks are putting patients in danger, the medical establishment got an unexpected rocket.

Leaks sprang up across the media as perk payments to leading health sector figures came to light in a clear attempt to put frontline critics of Government funding incompetence back in their (first aid) box.

Yes, it is strange that some medical chiefs get top-up pay from the takings of hospital shops, but what is even stranger is Enda Kenny’s selective outrage at such goings on.

When the Taoiseach let his Blueshirt buddies and cronies smash through the so-called public sector pay cap, we did not hear a squeak out of him.

But now he can have a dig at the medical top brass who have raised genuine worries about the chaotic nature of a department of health presided over by part-time stroke specialist/full-time clown Dr James Reilly.

Mr Kenny is incandescent with rage. The Taoiseach has insisted that public bodies who cannot give a valid explanation for the salary limit-busting antics will be “called in to account for their failure to respond”.

Blimey! It is just a shame Mr Kenny was not so exercised with concern when he slipped his mates tens of thousands of euro a year extra at the taxpayers’ expense.

The whole system of perks, top-ups, and allowances is such a farce that Public Expenditure Reform Minister Brendan Howlin promised he would create a great “bonfire” of them and light the night skies with the flames.

But, as so often with Mr Howlin, his ever-ready vanity did not match up to reality and what we got was a bonfire of inanity.

After boasting last year that “raised eyebrows” would greet the absurdity of many of the 1,100 payments he was planning to put to the torch, 1,099 of the perks remained unsinged after his pathetic little sparkler burned out just one top-up.

Maybe the shot fired across the medical establishment’s bows with the revelation of top-up pay scales was a warning that the political executive is prepared to play rough.

This comes as it faces into a €1bn health service black hole, and is desperate to distract public attention from the shambolic handling of the key department whose “emergency” HSE service plan has been delayed yet again.

As George Bernard Shaw once said: “Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

And it would seem the political pig is certainly trying to spread the muck around to cover up its own unpleasantness.

GBS loomed large over thepublic sector in another unusual instance when it was revealed that the National Gallery uses some of the royalties bequeathed to it from the rights to Pygmalion to give its director a €40,000 top-up payment.

With taxpayers forking-out €1m a year to the gallery, some might see the decision to hand Sean Rainbird 40 grand on top of his €99,236 annual salary so that he can fly home to England 45 times a year, a bit odd. Not so gallery chairwoman Olive Braiden, who is delighted at the idea of handing the director €200 for every round trip to London.

“It is working very well. We are very fortunate to have someone who is willing to make these trips over and back and do this important job for the people of Ireland,” Ms Braiden told a less than enthused Dáil Public Accounts Committee.

And indeed, how lucky we are to have such a figure at the helm of our national gallery.

We are used to the idea of being told top bankers have to get such obscene pay rates because of their importance to the economy — an economy they nearly ruined five years ago — but who knew that running a picture exhibition venue was also so crucial to Ireland Inc?

Ms Braiden did not see a problem with the fact that there is no clause seeking reimbursement from Mr Rainbird should he not need the full 40k for his trips across the Irish Sea, for, as she put its: “If he overspends, he won’t get any more.”

Well, that’s telling Mr Rainbird, isn’t it?

PAC members expressed increased unease when told the full cost of the €40,000 payment was €87,454 when tax liabilities were taken into account. Independent TD Shane Ross mused that Mr Shaw would not be happy at his royalties paying for the flights to Britain, but Ms Braiden was having none of it, replying: “I think Bernard Shaw would be very happy to pay for the director of the gallery, who is an exceptional person, to return to visit his family.”

This, of course, is the same Mr Shaw who said: “Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.”

While the goings-on at the National Gallery have highlighted the bubble of pompous elitism that still exists in some corners of the public sector, the political machine’s move against a medical establishment that dares criticise it is more sinister.

Not that the hospital bosses deserve our pity, given the lavish salaries they receive — topped-up from sweet shops or not — while charity fundraisers from the families of patients are needed to keep services going.

If only Shaw could put the matter in perspective; but the cash cow bequeathed to the gallery by GBS is not Pygmalion, but its garish, flashy musical off-shoot, My Fair Lady.

How sad the playwright is not around today to give his own take on the curious interplay between Mr Rainbird and Ms Braiden which could be summed-up as “My Airfare, Lady”.



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