Hannah Comber - Report on death must be published

HANNAH COMBER’S death just over three years ago — in June 2006 — will have disturbed anyone of an age who might have to face the reality of moving into a nursing home.

Her lonely death, without the comfort of relatives or friends around her, will frighten anyone with a father or a mother, a brother or a sister, or any close relative or friend dependent on such a home.

She died at the at Heatherside hospital near Doneraile, Co Cork, strapped to a chair. She was 75 years old and a postmortem examination found she choked to death. It is thought she fell asleep and slipped down on the chair, causing the belt to compress her throat.

So far we are dealing with a tragedy but events since that June evening have turned Hannah Comber’s death into a scandal that again highlights one of this society’s greatest problems — an absolute lack of accountability.

The first inkling that something might be amiss came when gardaí went to the hospital in the hours after Ms Comber’s death. They were told staff had washed and cleaned her. However, they were not told she had choked to death, alone and tied to a chair. The full circumstances of her awful death only came to light after the postmortem examination.

Was she not supervised? How many staff were on duty when she died? Why did staff not intervene as she struggled tied to the chair? Why were they less than open with gardaí after her death?

A Garda investigation followed and the Director of Public Prosecutions directed that charges should not be brought against anyone involved. Some time ago the DPP said he would explain his decisions if he could do so. It seems this scandal deserves such an explanation.

Hannah died more than three years ago and the Health Service Executive is still sitting on an internal report into her death. The report has been selectively leaked but the full document remains a mystery. This is an entirely unacceptable situation.

There are two suggested reasons for suppressing the report: firstly the possibility that staff are being improperly protected and, secondly, that the preparation of the report precluded the admission of patients to Heatherside, thereby making it possible to close the facility.

There is also the question of those under investigation policing and investigating themselves. All suggestions that the report is “independent” can be dismissed as balderdash if its authors don’t have the independence to publish it. This situation is also entirely unacceptable.

This Republic is facing the greatest economic crisis in its history because so many trusted figures betrayed the confidence placed in them. They did this because they knew they would never be held accountable.

The HSE staff who are suppressing this report are doing the same. Health Minister Mary Harney, even at this twilight stage in her career, must order the report be published immediately and in full. If she does not, it is yet another blow to the idea, the empowering idea, of transparency in public affairs.

We have suggested before that this country needs an American-style public prosecutor, an office with the power to intervene and demand immediate answers wherever, whenever and of whomever it wishes in a effort to restore accountability to our affairs.

The sad, lonely death of Hannah Comber and the ongoing scandal surrounding the suppressed report are further powerful arguments for such an office — as if they were needed.


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