Róisín Shortall: No regrets
No regrets, then. Three months after her shock resignation, Róisín Shortall looks back on her turbulent spell in Government with a jaundiced but unwavering eye.“Am I sorry I walked? No, not at all. I’d like to have been able to continue in the Department of Health but I didn’t believe it was possible to deliver on the reforms we promised in the Programme for Government while James Reilly is the Minister.”
The phone rings constantly with calls from Ordinary Joes, and her mailbag bulges with letters from disillusioned, sympathetic members of the public. But as Mary Harney once said, is one day in government not better than a lifetime in opposition? “I’m not interested in the trappings of power,” she responds. “I’ve always taken a workmanlike approach to politics. I’m there to do things. Yes, it is harder to do that in opposition but I wasn’t doing it in the department and I wasn’t prepared to continue pretending that I was minister for primary care when I wasn’t.”
Shortall’s departure is arguably the defining event of the first half of this Government’s term in office. Her rows with Reilly, particularly over primary care centres, exposed the interparty splits, the leaking of Labour’s soul and its failure to live up to promises of a new politics.
Subsequent media disclosures about the primary care centres showed a lone female junior minister standing up for objective criteria for allocating the centres where they were needed. Ranged against her were the big beasts of the old political establishment, all male, all doing politics the old way with their hands in the pork barrel.
Shortall herself doesn’t mention the “B” word but correspondents frequently tell her in their letters that she was bullied. She has always characterised her differences with Reilly as being based on ideology rather than personality, but a cracking in her voice when recounting events hints at a different story.
She says she prepared herself adequately for the political and media fallout to her departure, but not for the public reaction. “I have been overwhelmed by that. I believe there is a strong mood for change. People are really hungry for a new type of politics and they’re really disappointed with the way things have turned out.” The files show that it wasn’t just Reilly who intervened to add primary care centres in his constituency to the list; other locations added at the last moment were in the constituencies of other Ministers or in areas the subject of lobbying by Labour politicians.
“There was a lot of ‘That’s the way it works’ but it will always be like that until you try to change things,” Shortall says. “That’s what’s wrong with politics in this country. We need to move towards using the evidence to influence decisions.” She wonders whether the pre-election talk of “a new politics” now means anything. “I believed it had to mean something. It had to mean being open about how we do business and it had to mean spending money wisely. We’re no longer in a situation where money can be thrown around. Maybe that was naive. I certainly would say if I was in a ministerial position again I would do exactly the same. The kind of pork-barrel politics we see in this country: I think the public has moved way ahead of the political system. They’re not tolerant of that any longer. They want money spent wisely and decisions taken in an open way.”