Primary care centre issue refuses to go away and there may yet be more to come
ANALYSIS:Right up to the dying days of 2012, Minister for Health James Reilly seems unable to rid himself of controversy over primary care centres.
There are two separate but related strands to the affair that erupted last September when The Irish Times revealed that the Minister had added two towns in his constituency, Swords and Balbriggan, to a list of primary care centres to be developed by public-private partnership.
The first relates to the approach taken by the Minister and the wider Cabinet in disregarding carefully-worked-out criteria for deciding which towns should get these centres. Developed by HSE officials for then minister of state Róisín Shortall, they leaned heavily towards disadvantaged areas in greatest need of health facilities, but they were set aside by Ministers in an exercise in pork-barrel politics.
Freedom of information
That decision, which was uncovered through freedom of information requests, contributed to Ms Shortall’s resignation and badly tarnished the Government’s reputation.
The second, more specific strand relates to the subsequent revelation that the primary care centre in Balbriggan is being developed on land owned by a Fine Gael supporter, Séamus Murphy, by a developer, AJ Noonan of Rhonellen Developments, who has in the past contributed to the party. Mr Murphy’s debts are controlled by the National Asset Management Agency.
Reilly has said he had no involvement in the selection of a particular site in Balbriggan, and Mr Noonan says he is not political and has contributed to other parties.
It later emerged that Reilly met Nama officials last April and that a number of primary care centre locations were discussed at the meeting, including Balbriggan.
The allegations made in the Dáil yesterday arise from further freedom of information requests made by Sinn Féin about this meeting. Nama is precluded by law from discussing matters relating to its debtors or properties under its control, but the documents show the Minister’s officials provided him with pretty specific information about the Balbriggan site in advance of the meeting.
Their briefing notes refer to a site “in the town centre which is being used as a surface car park” and says that GPs have committed to locate there. Given Reilly’s background as the local TD and a long-standing GP in north Dublin, and given that his election posters were stored in Mr Murphy’s premises on the Dublin Road, it seems at least likely that he would have recognised the property being referred to.
This doesn’t mean that the specifics of the site were discussed at the Nama meeting, as Sinn Féin is alleging. The meeting was called to discuss “synergies” between the Department of Health and Nama in terms of making properties available for health uses.
The possible transfer of the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street to a Nama property in Dublin 4 seems to have been the main focus of the meeting, but primary care centres were also discussed.
Six months before the Nama meeting, Rhonellen signed an agreement with the HSE to provide a primary care centre in Balbriggan by lease arrangement. However, progress stalled over delays in transferring the property to its ownership. It was this doubt hanging over the project that prompted Reilly to place Balbriggan on the PPP list in July, even though Rhonellen had a contract to develop the centre by lease arrangement.
Reilly is likely to endure further unwelcome attention on the issue, but at this stage he may be thinking he has endured the worst.