What did Reilly do for us?

Will James Reilly’s time as Minister for Health go down in history books as a success or as a failure?

Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health, and James Reilly, Minister for Children: Will Varadkar continue with Reilly’s ambitious plan for universal health insurance? Photograph: Alan Betson

Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health, and James Reilly, Minister for Children: Will Varadkar continue with Reilly’s ambitious plan for universal health insurance? Photograph: Alan Betson

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 01:00

Bill Clinton says there are only three things that should matter to public servants in their work: “Are people better off when you quit than when you started? Do children have a brighter future? Are things coming apart or coming together?”

Consider the answers to these questions in the context of James Reilly’s tenure as Minister for Health. While the former GP and IMO leader will no doubt claim to have done a good job in difficult circumstances, it’s a fair bet that most neutral observers would give his performance the thumbs-down.

Reilly failed to make a serious dent in waiting lists, apart perhaps from trolley waits, and failed to convince ordinary people that the health service was getting better. Even though there were improvements, in areas such as cancer and cardiac services, with a resulting increase in life expectancy, the perception under Reilly’s reign was of a health service that was falling apart.

Sense of drift

The sense of drift grew by the day, as the Minister was ignored or overruled by fellow Cabinet members, and it often seemed like there was no one in charge.

Stopping this drift, restoring staff morale and regaining public confidence will be among the first priorities for his successor, Leo Varadkar.

Meanwhile, Reilly, now Minister for Children, is left to ponder what might have been. Having always insisted health was the only ministerial job he wanted, he now has to make do with a lesser ministry, albeit one that still commands a seat at the Cabinet table.

Reilly, relatively new to politics and Fine Gael, was regarded as a loose cannon at the start of this administration, and he quickly fulfilled the low expectations of him from the start.

The fact that he has survived while the Government’s other loose cannon, Alan Shatter, was forced to resign from Cabinet will serve as little comfort.

The truth is that Reilly should have gone over two years ago, when his efforts to prioritise the building of primary care centres in two sites in his own constituency were exposed in this newspaper.

Parish-pump politics

This grubby exercise in parish-pump politics set the tone for the Government as a whole, by confounding its promises to deliver a new type of politics.

That Reilly wasn’t sacked probably has most to do with the fact that other ministers were deeply implicated in this dubious decision.

The perception of Reilly as a politician with more than an eye on local needs has persisted, with further controversies over the allocation of Lottery grants and autism services to north Dublin.

He did little to enhance the status of his office by becoming the first minister in the history of the State to be named in Stubbs Gazette over an unpaid business debt, one that remains unpaid to this day. His fellow Cabinet ministers barely blinked.

The direct outcome of the primary care centre row was the resignation not of Reilly but of his Labour junior minister, Róisín Shortall, with whom he was already having a difficult relationship.