Reform is not abstract: misgovernment does real, tangible harm to our citizens
Opinion: Three stories from the past week – about Phil Hogan, the HSE and developer Tom McFeely – show the need for action
Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan, speaking last week at the publication of a report into the HSE’s handling of a child sexual abuse case. Photograph: Eric Luke
Deep within the political system, there is a belief that reform is an abstraction for anoraks. It is of no real interest to most citizens because it has no tangible effect on their lives. But there is nothing abstract about misgovernment. Let’s take three concrete stories from last week alone.
First, there’s Harry McGee’s extraordinary story in last Wednesday’s Irish Times about Phil Hogan’s plans to abolish an entire layer of governance – the 80 town councils that are the closest thing we have to real democracy. Leave aside the merits or otherwise of abolition – most people would surely agree that this is a significant step. And how was it to be taken? By a phone call. Hogan’s “reform” bill has more than 65 sections. Fine Gael decided that it did not even merit a proper Cabinet meeting. There would be an “incorporeal” cabinet meeting – a fancy name for a quick phone call to whichever ministers were available. As it happened, the Labour ministers – to their credit – objected and the “incorporeal” meeting never happened.
Lacking in seriousness
The fact remains, however, that the dominant party in government thought that this was all perfectly fine; that large and complex changes can be made in rushed, unprepared phone conversations. This is the reality of top-down government: it is hasty, sloppy and fundamentally lacking in seriousness.
The second case in point is the report published by Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan on the HSE’s handling of an extremely vulnerable citizen who needed the State to be on her side. An 11-year-old girl made disclosures that “included but were not confined to reports of repeated instances of violent rape by an adult male and involved death threats and assault with a knife”. Yet she failed to get any therapeutic help from the HSE. Her dealings with a crucial arm of the State meant, as she told Logan, that she “no longer trusted the HSE to look after her best interests and that she felt betrayed by their actions”. Isn’t that the very definition of a system of governance that is not working: that a citizen in dire need ends up feeling that her State does not have her best interests at heart?
If you read Logan’s report, it is clear that the key issues in this case are responsibility and accountability. This appalling failure happened because at no stage was any one person responsible for dealing with the needs of this child. And as a result, of course, no one can be personally accountable for the failure. Neither in Logan’s report nor in the HSE’s response is any individual blamed for anything. No one will be disciplined. No one is answerable.