Harris bloodied but unbowed by former HSE chief’s attack

Resilient Minister for Health will survive criticism Fine Gael TDs see as unwarranted

Minister for Health Simon Harris with Angela Twohey, secretary of Friends of Nenagh Hospital, at the opening of the UL Hospitals cataract centre at Nenagh Hospital. Photograph:  Brian Arthur

Minister for Health Simon Harris with Angela Twohey, secretary of Friends of Nenagh Hospital, at the opening of the UL Hospitals cataract centre at Nenagh Hospital. Photograph: Brian Arthur

 

There were roughly equal amounts of smirking and scowling among Fine Gael TDs and Ministers yesterday when asked about the criticisms of Minister for Health Simon Harris by former Health Service Executive chief executive Tony O’Brien at the weekend.

O’Brien, who resigned as head of the HSE at the height of the cervical cancer controversy last May, gave a long interview to the Sunday Business Post at the weekend in which he launched several stinging broadsides at the Minister.

It was an attack which was clearly meant to wound, evidence that revenge is a dish best served cold.

I don’t think it will be damaging, it just makes Tony O’Brien look bad

O’Brien described Harris as a “weak Minister”, obsessed with media coverage, who “runs scared of headlines”. During the controversy, O’Brien charged, Harris behaved like “a frightened little boy”.

Tony O’Brien: It had been widely believed in political circles and among observers that he was unlikely to seek another term as head of the HSE. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times
Tony O’Brien: Former HSE chief described Minister for Health Simon Harris as a “weak Minister”, obsessed with media coverage, who “runs scared of headlines”. During the CervicalCheck controversy, O’Brien charged, Harris behaved like “a frightened little boy”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

As political attacks go, this was a savage assault on a Minister by a former senior official who worked closely with him, one intended to depict the youngest member of the Government as a boy doing a man’s job, turning the Minister’s most visible characteristic – his youth – against him. As such it wasn’t just intended to hurt Harris; it was meant to undermine him politically.

‘Totally unprofessional’

“Totally uncalled for, totally unprofessional,” was the verdict of one Fine Gael TD. “I don’t think it will be damaging, it just makes Tony O’Brien look bad.”

Other TDs echoed the judgment. “A bit over the top,” summarised one.

Kate O’Connell, a Fine Gael TD and member of the Oireachtas health committee described O’Brien’s comments as “particularly spiteful”, pointing out that at the time of the controversy, Harris was hamstrung by a lack of information from CervicalCheck and the HSE. Harris sought to address the needs and represent the victims “in a respectful and compassionate manner,” O’Connell said.

Anything he may lack in terms of experience or age, he makes up in his commitment and his compassion

Other Fine Gael TDs, including some ministerial colleagues, were less sympathetic to Harris. They recognised elements of truth, they said, in O’Brien’s cutting descriptions of the Minister. “Everything seems skittish and media-driven,” was one colleague’s assessment.

“He’s Minister for Health and health is not good for us,” said another TD.

Harris is not universally popular in the Fine Gael parliamentary party. He is distrusted by some of the Varadkar gang (he supported Simon Coveney for the leadership) and attracts the usual response to youthful success and early promotion – part envy, part spite, part suspicion that he will be found out.

His boss’s defence yesterday – “Anything he may lack in terms of experience or age, he makes up in his commitment and his compassion” – was judged by many to be underwhelming.

It’s also a bit rich coming from Varadkar, something of a political prodigy himself. He was Taoiseach at 38, after all.

Ultimately Harris came through a controversy that convulsed the Government (and the Taoiseach’s office) and which, although he was entirely remote from any wrongdoing or mistakes, malfeasance or negligence, could have destroyed the young Minister.

He is, doubtless, damaged and a bit diminished by O’Brien’s attacks. But he will get through it. He has the abortion legislation to do this week, which will shift attention quickly to a more politically advantageous terrain for him. The ability to survive in politics is not to be sniffed at.

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