Election 2020: ‘We all think the health service is a lost cause’

Voters interviewed in Cork believe health service problems are institutional and that people have low expectations for ministers of health

Book club members Mary Downes, Alice Anne O’Leary, Rose Mason, Orla Kiely and Maria Murphy  in Monkstown, Cork, at their monthly meeting. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Book club members Mary Downes, Alice Anne O’Leary, Rose Mason, Orla Kiely and Maria Murphy in Monkstown, Cork, at their monthly meeting. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision


Just after 8pm, the doorbell of the house in Rochestown starts ringing.

Nine women file in for their monthly book club, in the heart of the Cork South Central constituency, where both Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin are running for re-election.

If you’re in a book club – and even if you’re not – you probably know the drill. The rules of engagement at this one are simple. The host provides dinner (tonight, it’s butternut squash soup, vegetable casserole and berry pavlova) and suggests the book (Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. Verdict: disappointing.) The book is generally discussed between casserole and pavlova. For the rest of the night, the floor is open.

With the general election looming, they’ve agreed to let The Irish Times sit in on a politics special. The discussion, as discussions of politics frequently do in this country, starts with health. “Health is the one issue that concerns everybody,” says Rose Nason, tonight’s host. And “no matter how much money they put into it, they’re just not managing it. Government after government, it’s the same thing.”

Trolley crisis

They agree they’re fortunate to have an acute hospital with a good diagnostic service, Cork University Hospital, on their doorstep. But nobody wants to end up in the emergency department there. Mary Downes had direct experience of the trolley crisis five or six years ago, while caring for her father, who had Lewy body dementia. “They do what they can in there, but they don’t want you in there with [the patient], because the place is so small. But you’ve a parent who is in their 80s and they’ve dementia, and you can’t leave them on their own either. It was horrible.”

Even after her father got a bed, “They’re trying to figure out, okay, does he need to go in for respite? Does he need nursing home care? [And while that’s going on] he’s taking a bed that somebody who has a different medical illness really needs.”

Do they think there’s a moment of reckoning coming for the Government over its handling of health? Not necessarily. The problems are institutional, they believe. “With each minister, from Mary Harney onwards, the problem has gotten worse,” says Alice-Anne O’Leary.

“Our expectations are low of politicians in the health service, because we all think it’s a lost cause anyway,” agrees Maria Murphy.

The verdict on the economy is that it has been “steady as you go”, but just as they’re not blaming the Government for the problems in health, neither are they giving it full credit for the economy. “It’s going well, but I don’t think they can take credit for it. It’s the economic cycle,” says Murphy. Although, “in fairness, Paschal Donohoe didn’t lose the run of himself in the last budget”.

Here, in the heart of a constituency that’s frequently seen as a bellwether for the rest of the country, the Government’s handling of Brexit is a source of – occasionally qualified – pride. “I have to say I’m very proud of the way they handled Brexit,” says Marie, who works in the public sector and can’t give her last name. Murphy’s view is less enthused. While they “steadied the ship with Brexit, nothing else got done” for the past two years.

The women here are in their 40s and 50s and mostly working in good jobs, in a range of industries from health to IT. They should be looking forward to a comfortable retirement. But most have some anxiety about the future. The cost of renting in Dublin means their young adult children may be forced to look abroad for work. Susan McCarthy’s children “know they’re never going to get on the property ladder. They’re paying more than half their wages on rent and commuting, not even from places they want to be”.

Nason’s 22-year-old daughter has already decided she can’t afford to stay in the capital, and neither will her friends. “These are the people we need to pay our pension.”

Crime and drugs

The other issue worrying them is crime and drugs. On the night we meet, a few kilometres away, student Cameron Blair was stabbed to death at a house party. The news has not yet broken, but the women cite drug-fuelled violence as a major concern. “You hear horrible stories of people, innocently out in town, hit in a one-punch attack,” says Nason.

So given all of their concerns about the future, will they vote for a change of government? Not overwhelmingly so. Of those who have made up their minds, there are three first preferences for Coveney; and one for the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin. But the good news for the Green party is that there are two definite first preferences for its candidate, Lorna Bogue.

As its members reflect on the future, the mood from the book club is sober. Ireland is like a beautiful modern building on crumbling Victorian foundations, says Downes. She cites the marriage equality and Eighth Amendment repeal referendums and the economy as examples of progress. “But we don’t seem to be getting any value for money from where we’re putting our public funds – when you look at health; education, particularly for minority groups; housing; infrastructure. You think, God, is it all just going to cave away someday, and the beautiful, modern piece on top will come crumbling down?”