CervicalCheck row: Taoiseach made risky promises under pressure

Government stands accused of breaking promise that no woman would have to face court

Taoiseach  Leo Varadkar: “What we propose to do is to offer mediation in every case so that women can avoid having to go to court and the trauma of a court hearing.”    Photograph: Leah Farrell/ RollingNews.ie

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: “What we propose to do is to offer mediation in every case so that women can avoid having to go to court and the trauma of a court hearing.” Photograph: Leah Farrell/ RollingNews.ie

 

Senior political figures are often described as having experienced their “worst weeks” in office after a period of intense controversy and scandal.

Often the description is dismissed by those at the centre of events as the latest worst week since their last one a short period before.

But Leo Varadkar is understood to have told others in Government that the week in early May when the CervicalCheck scandal was at its height has been his toughest since becoming Taoiseach more than a year ago.

Emma Mhic Mhathúna during a demonstration at Leinster House, Dublin, as part of a day of action organised by Standing 4 Women, in solidarity with women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Emma Mhic Mhathúna during a demonstration at Leinster House, Dublin, as part of a day of action organised by Standing 4 Women, in solidarity with women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal, earlier in the summer. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

On the Thursday of that week, mother-of-five Emma Mhic Mhathúna stopped the country in its tracks when she told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that she was dying of cancer. She had been incorrectly given the all-clear after a cervical smear test in 2013.

The following day, Friday May 11th, Varadkar said on RTÉ’s Six One News: “What we propose to do is to offer mediation in every case so that women can avoid having to go to court and the trauma of a court hearing.”

Ruth Morrissey, who has cervical and breast cancer, was forced to take the witness stand for two days

In cases where the laboratories in question did not want to enter mediation, Varadkar said: “What we will do in this situation is the State will settle and pursue the lab later. So, essentially the State will be on the side of the plaintiff, on the side of the woman.”

It is claimed by sources in Government that Varadkar canvassed advice before making that promise.

Ruth Morrissey

Yet last week, Limerick woman Ruth Morrissey, who has cervical and breast cancer, was forced to take the witness stand for two days and deliver personal testimony about the pain she is suffering and about the impact of her terminal illness on her seven-year-old daughter.

From within Government, it is now said that the attitudes of the laboratories at the centre of the scandal have changed in recent weeks because they do not believe, in some cases, that their staff were negligent. This has resulted in an increased willingness to fight cases being taken.

Some also privately claim that the legal tactics deployed by Cian O’Carroll, representing many of the women involved, have been designed to “leverage” the Government – although such views are unlikely to be expressed publicly.

We always knew it would not be possible and we were quite clear about that actually, including to Government, from the outset

Yet even if these explanations are taken at face value, it should not come as a shock that lawyers would seek to do their utmost for those they represent.

Missed deadline

Another promise made at the height of the CervicalCheck scandal – that a review of 3,000 smear tests would be completed by the end of May – was also missed.

At the Public Accounts Committee, Tracey Conroy, the assistant secretary at the Department of Health, said officials had made it clear this process would probably take between four and six months.

“We always knew it would not be possible and we were quite clear about that actually, including to Government, from the outset,” she said of the shorter timeframe.

Like that missed deadline, the Government now stands accused of breaking another promise – ensuring that no woman would have to go to court

Perhaps the intense pressure of the “worst week” – and a willingness to just get through a tumultuous few days – explains why promises were made that always risked being unfulfilled.