Seán Moncrieff: Stephen Donnelly seems to be trapped in Kobayashi Maru

Minister is continually compared to some other, fantasy minister who would do a far better job

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly’s  sacrifice may never be recognised. But like Jesus, he’s offered himself up for the greater good. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly’s sacrifice may never be recognised. But like Jesus, he’s offered himself up for the greater good. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

In the Star Trek films and TV shows, a thing called the Kobayashi Maru pops up every now and again. It’s a simulated test where cadets at Starfleet Academy, captaining their own vessel, are required to rescue another vessel in distress. But out of nowhere, several Klingon ships turn up and give them a vigorous phasering. Everyone dies.

Afterwards, the chastened cadet is told that there was no way they could have saved the other vessel or their own crew: the whole point of the Kobayashi Maru is that it is a no-win scenario. It was actually a test of character; of how the cadet deals with failure. 

Along with the massive plot hole (why haven’t the cadets heard of this test before?), this is pretty similar to becoming Minister for Health. Although Brian Cowen didn’t call it Angola (that was the work of a spin doctor), it is generally regarded as a problematic posting. It chews up and spits out successive ministers. Yet there’s always a new one who fancies their chances.

Donnelly is trapped in a counter-factual hell: he’s continually compared to some other, fantasy minister who would do a far better job if only they were given the chance

Presumably, Stephen Donnelly felt the same. You’d hope he did. Little point in taking the gig otherwise. But – this being Ireland – having such an intention isn’t always interpreted as optimism, but sure-to-fail cockiness. Back when he was an Independent TD, I interviewed him a few times, and he had this management consultant schtick where even the most complex problem could be solved by taking three or four easy-to-follow steps. It was, perhaps, a bit too slick for its own good. But he seemed to me to be sincere.

Of course, describing how to solve a problem and actually solving it are two different things. Our health system has the complexity of particle physics, mixed with the Borgia-like intrigues of his own department, the HSE and his own party, many of whom silently rejoice when he screws it up. 

Which he sometimes has: once he achieved ministerial office, his sleek communication sklls seemed to fail him. The easy-to-follow steps turned into somebody-did-some-work-on-something word salads. There were a number of close-to-embarrassing media appearances, culminating in trampoline-gate, where he achieved full morto. 

At this stage, he has ascended to full-blown Kobayashi Maru. He could find 10 million Pfizer jabs and personally deliver them, gift-wrapped, to every home in Ireland and people would still gripe about how he took so long.

He could develop a health system so efficient, so cost-effective that we all become immortal, and people would still say he only did it to show off.

I’m sure his friends and family and political supporters want him to succeed, but it doesn’t feel like anyone else does: despite the glaring, practical fact that we really need him to. Like many ministers before him, he’s made many mistakes, yet for some reason we’ve generated a particular sort of bile, just for him.
Perhaps the problem is that Donnelly is trapped in a counter-factual hell: he’s continually compared to some other, fantasy minister who would do a far better job if only they were given the chance. It’s like we are the Irish Mammy, constantly berating the son who stayed to work on the farm, and who will never be a patch on his brother who moved to Australia and never calls.

There’s also our collective emotional need. As the anger and frustration has metastasised over the last 12 months, we’ve really, really needed someone to hate and blame. 

There have been several other candidates, of course, but Donnelly zoomed to the top of the list. Along with his many other responsibilities, he is now the National Punching Bag: there to make us all feel a little bit better.

Perhaps he’s aware of this, and like Jesus, offered himself up for the greater good. Comparing himself to the son of God: typical Stephen Donnelly.