Shortall affair 'hurt' Government

Fri, Sep 28, 2012, 01:00

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore refused to be drawn further on the primary care centre row this afternoon, despite a new explanation given by Minister for Health James Reilly last night for his decision to add two sites in his constituency to the controversial list.

Speaking in New York this afternoon, Mr Gilmore said he would not say if Mr Reilly’s new version of events concerned him.

“Obviously I wasn’t in the Dáil last night… I’ve been briefed on the explanation that [Mr Reilly] has given, but, as I’ve said all through, my focus and the focus of the Government has been to get the primary care centres built.”

Mr Gilmore said people had lost sight of the fact that Ireland is in economic crisis and that it was “a very significant achievement” that the Government had been able to ring-fence funding for the new primary care centres.

Earlier, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said he was "not clear" about the procedures followed when two locations in  Mr Reilly's constituency were added to the priority list for primary care centres.

In Brussels this morning, Mr Quinn said the controversy over Róisín Shortall's resignation had hurt the Government and said he regretted her departure and the manner of her resignation.

Mr Quinn said the relationship between Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Taoiseach Enda Kenny is "absolutely 100 per cent" and said this was the most important thing for the Government.

Asked if the controversy had seriously damaged the cohesion of the coalition, he said: "I don't think it has been seriously damaged, I think they have been hurt. We have lost a good colleague in Róisín Shortall."

Asked if he was clear about the decisions made as regards locations for primary care sites, he said: "I'm not clear in my mind, to be honest with you. I haven't sat down with him [Dr Reilly] to talk through in detail what has happened, no more than he would be clear about the priority I have given to different schools in different parts of the country."

Mr Quinn said he was happy, however, that more than 20 locations were chosen because it was important to have flexibility in the case of problems. This was good contingency planning, he said. "But as to whether I'm familiar with the details - no."

The Minister was also asked whether Dr Reilly was becoming a liability for the Government. "James Reilly, as I said, has a horrendous job to do," Mr Quinn said.

The Minister said former minister for health Mary Harney went into the department "gung-ho" to fix the service but didn't succeed. In fact, he said, the service was probably worse when she left than when she went into it.

When it was put to the Minister that Dr Reilly had encountered other problems not directly related to the health portfolio, Mr Quinn said: "There are difficulties there, as I've said, and I'm sure that James Reilly will be able to work his way through with that."

Mr Quinn denied Ms Shortall was abandoned by the Labour Party or the Tánaiste. "She wasn't abandoned, she wasn't abandoned by any of us," he said.  "I regret that she left and that she resigned in the way that she did. We are very sorry to have lost her as a colleague."

Questioned whether Ms Shortall's decision was wrong, he reiterated his regret and said: "It's for her to decide whether it's a good or bad decision.

"James Reilly has a very difficult job to do, and I'm sure that Kathleen Lynch and Alex White will help him in making sure that we get the kind of health service that we promised in the programme for government."

Yesterday, the Minister for Health offered a new explanation for his decision to add two locations in his Dublin North constituency to a list of primary care centres.

Speaking in the Dáil last night, Dr Reilly said Swords and Balbriggan were identified as high priority areas by the HSE five years ago. But both “lost out” after Ms Shortall, the then-Minister of State, increased the weighting attached to deprivation in selecting priority locations in which centres would be built.

“Multiplying the deprivation index by three, they lost out. They were swept from high priority to low priority. Under the original priority system both would have been in the top 35. However, under the new system with an altered weighting system they ended down the list.”

This is not borne out, however, by documents obtained by The Irish Times under Freedom of Information legislation last week. They show that Balbriggan ranked 44th and Swords 127th in a draft list compiled last June – before Ms Shortall ordered officials to increase the weighting attached to deprivation.

This exercise did little to alter the rankings of the two towns in the list, with Balbriggan remaining at 44th and Swords slipping just three places to 130th, the documents show.

Meanwhile, it emerged yesterday the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were so concerned about the breakdown in relations between Dr Reilly and Ms Shortall that they tried to take action more than two months ago to remedy it.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore both came to the conclusion that the rift in the Department of Health could lead to serious political damage for the Coalition.

According to a Government source, small working groups were formed in the offices of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to help resolve the impasse.

Dr Reilly and Ms Shortall, who was the minister of state in charge of primary care, were called in to meet the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in July and told of the need to address their deteriorating relations.

It is understood the event that prompted the meeting was the announcement of the list of 35 primary health centres that month.

Ms Shortall had expressed strong objections when the announcement was made and claimed a number of centres had been added without clear explanation or justification.

Yesterday, the Tánaiste moved quickly to draw a line under the crisis, appointing Dublin South backbench TD Alex White as Ms Shortall’s successor. Mr Gilmore denied that he had sided with Dr Reilly, insisting Ms Shortall “had my support at every stage”. He also rejected the claim that Dr Reilly’s decision to alter the list of primary care centres amounted to “stroke politics”.

“I think that’s a very pejorative term and I don’t think anything much is served by that . . . What we have to look at here is what we’re trying to achieve,” adding there was little point in “trawling over” the episode. “I think what people are more interested in is getting those centres provided.”

Opposition parties challenged the independence of the process accusing the Government of clientelism and “stroke politics”, with Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher saying the public had a right to know how they were chosen.

Roscommon Labour Senator John Kelly said yesterday he had lobbied Mr Gilmore’s aides about the need for a centre in Ballaghaderreen from about 12 months before the decision was made. He said that the town was 33 miles away from the nearest hospital and had been badly neglected.

Saying lobbying was part of the normal political process, he added: “Politically if you want to do anything you have to [lobby]. If you left it to civil servants and the HSE we would get absolutely nothing,” he said.

Fine Gael TD Frank Feighan also said he lobbied on behalf of Boyle in Roscommon, while several other TDs from Fine Gael said privately yesterday they had lobbied their Ministers for locations that were eventually chosen.

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