Letter shows State saw Bridget McCole not as the victim but as the enemy

Sat, Aug 2, 1997, 01:00

From the start of his involvement with the aftermath of the hepatitis C debacle, Michael Noonan seemed determined to hold the departmental line. This meant, firstly, insisting that the expert group report published in February 1995 was the last word on the scandal. Secondly, it involved an insistence that the victims should be compensated through the tribunal established for that purpose rather than through the courts. The tribunal made awards without admission of liability, whereas the courts would seek to establish, in essence, who was to blame.

These two aims became intertwined when it became clear in the discovery of documents for Mr Bridget McCole's High Court case, information emerged which, at the very least, put the scandal in a different light. Instead of being a terrible accident, it began to appear the disaster resulted from terrible and almost incomprehensible negligence by the Blood Transfusion Service Board.

On July 21st, 1995, Positive Action, the umbrella group for the victims, was warned that unless they went quietly to the compensation tribunal, they would face "uncertainties, delays, stresses, confrontation and costs". Any cases the victims might take would be defended by the State "if necessary to the Supreme Court". The message was clear - accept the expert group report, take the money, don't ask for an admission of liability, and don't ask any more questions.

When Mrs McCole chose nevertheless to pursue her case, the State's threat of confrontation and stress was put into action. The State opposed her attempts to preserve her privacy by suing under an assumed name. It tried to stop her in her tracks by pleading the statute of limitations.

It even denied, for the purposes of the case, that the BTSB ever manufactured anti-D, the serum with which Mrs McCole and 1,600 others were poisoned. The BTSB, though without the prior knowledge of Mr Noonan, placed a lodgment in court, a device which puts extra pressure on a plaintiff. All of this was done at a time when the full extent of the scandal, as revealed by the Finlay tribunal report published last March, was unknown to the public. As more questions were being asked, Michael Noonan said Mrs McCole's case would act, in effect, as a tribunal of inquiry. Yet, at the same time, he was at least tacitly a party to a legal strategy aimed at ensuring the case would never come to court.

In September 1996, as Mrs McCole was dying, solicitors for the BTSB wrote to her solicitors offering to admit liability, to settle her case and to apologise for the BTSB negligence. But they warned that if Mrs McCole refused to settle and continued to seek exemplary or punitive damages, they would seek "all additional costs thereby incurred".

The most significant revelation yesterday was that this letter was shown to Michael Noonan before it was sent and was not altered after he had seen it. It seems that a Minister who ought to have been primarily concerned to uphold the rights of a woman who had been fatally poisoned by a State institution was at least tacitly in agreement with the issuing of a threat to that woman.

Yet the firm impression conveyed by Mr Noonan's statements on the issue was that his role was much more distant. In October 1996, after Mrs McCole's death, he strongly implied to the Dail that he was not involved in the BTSB legal strategy. He had, he said, been "informed" of what was going on, but "I was not asked for my permission. I was not asked to make a policy decision. Whether deputies like it or not, the BTSB is a separate legal entity . . . it would be totally improper of me to try and give a direction on the matter."

This impression that the BTSB and the State were conducting totally separate legal strategies was later called into question when on RTE Radio 1, Marian Finucane asked Michael Noonan's Cabinet colleague Brendan Howlin: "Why was the BTSB allowed to make legal threats to the McCole family when it was known they [the BTSB] had no legal defence?"

Brendan Howlin said that issue was "handled by government in relation to the advice that was given and the strategies that were taken by the government . . . the Minister at the time and the government made the decision in relation to how these things happen . . ."

It seems on the basis of yesterday's revelations that Michael Noonan's involvement in the pursuit of Mrs McCole was much closer than he indicated to the Dail and more in keeping with what Brendan Howlin told RTE. It is hard to understand why Mr Noonan would have been shown the letter in advance, if not for his approval of its contents. And if his approval was being sought, how could he tell the Dail that "I was not asked for my permission"?

In a functioning democracy, the word "versus" in the title of the legal case "Bridget Ellen McCole versus the Minister for Health", setting the interests of a citizen against the interests of her political protector, would have no conceivable meaning. But to a dying and grossly-wronged woman, to her husband and children, its meaning was made all too clear.

Now that the last big question in this terrible saga has finally been answered, its meaning is clear to the rest of us as well. The simple answer to the question put by the McCole family is that their State saw Bridget Ellen McCole as an enemy. Obvious as that answer now is, its implications remain almost unthinkable.