Miriam Lord: ‘Doughnut’ fails to extract Varadkar from jam

Taoiseach coincidentally surrounded by women as he addresses serious women’s issues


The Taoiseach fell prey to an accidental doughnut during Leaders’ Questions.

It was probably just a coincidence.

Although some would say it was 100 per cent planned.

Discussion of the cervical cancer information scandal was in its second day in the Dáil, with Opposition leaders continuing to put the Government under pressure. Leo Varadkar – a former minister for health – was well aware he was in for another grilling when he arrived in the chamber at midday.

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The rolling disclosures about the non-disclosures to women with cancer of critical facts concerning their health history demanded further answers. Everyone was aware that the manner in which this episode has been handled by CervicalCheck and the HSE has led to women the length and breadth of the country fretting over the accuracy of their cancer smear test results.

When the Taoiseach rose to address the issue, the gender of the Ministers sitting nearest him was very noticeable: two women to his left (Josepha Madigan, Regina Doherty), two sitting in front of him (Helen McEntee and Mary Mitchell-O'Connor) and one (Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy) sitting a row back. The odd man out was chief whip Joe McHugh, who always occupies the place directly behind his boss.

A female doughnut around Leo is not the most usual configuration of Ministers at Leaders’ Questions, even if it has become de rigueur for big photo-ops outside Leinster House. It was almost as if somebody had suggested surrounding Leo with ladies on this occasion when he had to talk about serious women’s issues. Send out a good subliminal message, and all that.

Apparently people fall for that sort of thing.

Window-dressing

But we are happy to accept that this was an accidental doughnut with not a hint of frippery about it. As too was the doughnut of women around the Taoiseach on the day before too. His people would have been far too busy trying to get to the bottom of the cervical cancer debacle to bother with such window-dressing. Wouldn’t they?

For the second time, the Taoiseach moved to reassure women whose smear tests returned a negative result that they should not worry that those results may not be accurate. He repeated, word for word, his line from the previous day where he said he was speaking “as a Taoiseach, as a doctor and as a brother of two sisters”.

He acknowledged a lot of women are worried they might have cancer and haven’t been told this by CervicalCheck and the HSE. “That is not the case.”

And to the many more women who had smear tests recently and are now wondering if they can trust the outcome: “I can reassure them that if they have been given the all-clear, it is true.” While there is a small margin of error, there “is no reason to believe that the information they’ve been given about their tests being clear is untrue.”

But it might not.

However, retesting will be available to those who request it and the State will cover the cost.

This is a difficult situation for politicians to address and it shows. They don’t want to be seen as using the medical suffering of women to gain political advantage. The Taoiseach and his Minister for Health are at a far enough remove from the mess to escape serious personal criticism, and nobody can doubt their bona fides as they promise to take every action needed to help women involved while fully investigating the circumstances which brought us here.

Solid ground

They were on more solid ground calling for the resignation of HSE director-general Tony O'Brien as a result of his handling of the issue and on foot of an Irish Times story reporting that he joined the board of an American contraceptive manufacturer in advance of announcing he will step down from running the country's health service in August.

The Mater hospital has had a very interesting relationship with contraception in recent years – "down with that sort of thing" being the prevailing attitude

The Taoiseach was slow to say anything about O’Brien’s new role and why the Minister for Health sanctioned it until he was pressed hard for an answer by the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin.

It’s all legal, above board and in accordance with the outgoing chief executive’s contract.

However, a further element of this story is that the chairman of Evofem Biosciences in California is businessman Tom Lynch, who is also chairman of the hospital group which includes the Mater hospital in Dublin.

Ironically, the Mater hospital has had a very interesting relationship with contraception in recent years – “down with that sort of thing” being the prevailing attitude in accordance with its Catholic ethos. Nothing whatsoever to do with Tom Lynch, but an amusing side note nonetheless.

Given the matter under discussion, this wasn’t a suitable matter for heckling. But Mattie McGrath seemed particularly interested in the fate of Tony O’Brien, loudly shouting “hear hear!” when Mary Lou McDonald told the Taoiseach if he was really serious about reassuring women the first thing he needed to do “is to remove that incompetent man from the position he currently holds”.

Fair procedure

When the Ceann Comhairle asked her not to name people who are not members of the House as they are entitled to fair procedure, Mattie – leading light of the retain the Eighth campaign – shouted: “What about those women?”

He later made his views clear to the Taoiseach. “I want you, in the interests of the women and children of Ireland, and the mental health of the people of Ireland, to immediately dispose of the services of Minister Harris, and Mr O’Brien.

“It must be remembered that Mr O’Brien had a track record of deceit with the Irish Family Planning Association and what he did there before he ever came into the HSE. There was no investigation of that, and you were the Minister for Health at that time.”

Both the Minister and O’Brien “have to be sacked”.

Meanwhile, Róisín Shortall finally give her colleagues a line which they might be able to use against the Taoiseach, while steering clear of the women with cancer.

Is it true, she asked, that Lynch hosted a big fundraiser for Leo before he became Fine Gael leader?

Leo stuttered his way through his reply, clearly caught off guard. “I did. That is a matter of public record. I didn’t appoint him to anything.”

It was a very brief exchange, but the Taoiseach seemed discomfited by it afterwards, chewing his knuckle and suddenly becoming very subdued in the chamber.

It’s a small world.