Miriam Lord: Government knows value of everything but cost of nothing

Varadkar resorts to Wildean Reverse when faced with questions about children’s hospital

Labour  TD Alan Kelly and Labour Leader Brendan Howlin:  “There’s a vast crater in St James’s and, having dug themselves into this hole, the Government seems to have no choice but to keep digging and try to find a way out.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Labour TD Alan Kelly and Labour Leader Brendan Howlin: “There’s a vast crater in St James’s and, having dug themselves into this hole, the Government seems to have no choice but to keep digging and try to find a way out.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Deep below Merrion Street, in the bowels of Government Buildings, is a top secret laboratory.

It is entered via a concealed opening in rat-infested shrubbery around the back of St Stephen’s Green, from where a dark subterranean passageway leads to the Batcave-style lair.

Operatives in possession of the highest security clearance in the State are stationed around the clock here; the finest minds in science work day and night in this high-tech hideaway, inching ever closer to the ultimate prize: cloning Kieran.

Welcome to Project Mulvey.

Politicians can’t get enough of Kieran Mulvey. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Politicians can’t get enough of Kieran Mulvey. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Because there just isn’t enough of the rootin’, tootin’, troubleshootin’ industrial relations kingpin to go around. Politicians can’t get enough of Kieran Mulvey. In their world, no other negotiator exists. From Bertie Ahern’s time to the present day, the former union boss and now retired head of the Labour Relations Commission is the go-to mediator for distressed Ministers afraid to act and frustrated Opposition leaders who want them to get on with it.

The nurses are out on strike again. Tuesday marked their second full day on the picket lines. The Taoiseach is holding firm – his government can’t make an exception of the nurses and give them a pay rise without giving it across the board to all public sector employees who signed up to a wage agreement.

Not good enough, thunder the Opposition.

“Why not engage in mediation, Taoiseach, to create a meaningful process so that you can set in train a process that would come within the aegis of the industrial relations machinery?” suggested the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, in the Dáil. “Why not deploy somebody, for example, of the calibre of Kieran Mulvey to engage with both sides to develop such a process that would bring the Government and the unions together under aegis of the industrial relations machinery to resolve this issue?”

Klaxon

A klaxon went off deep in the bowels.

Typical. Never a nurse when you need one.

No. A klaxon went off deep in the bowels of Government Buildings at the mention of Mulvey. The boffins downed their sonic screwdrivers and, when the smoke cleared, they peered into the matter transformer capsules. But, yet again, their latest attempts to clone Kieran had ended with the same, baffling results.

“More Colm Brophys,” sighed a white-coated lad assistant, shaking his head sadly, looking along the glass-fronted row of identical Fine Gael TDs for Dublin South West.

“Never mind,” said the professor. “The Government is shipping heavy pressure because of the Brexit, the nurses strike and the cost overruns at the National Children’s Hospital. They need as many Colm Brophys as the machine can handle so he can sit on multiple radio and TV discussion panels, ignoring the barrage of criticism while blustering amiably until the closing credits.”

The work goes on. The latest plan involves not constructing the prototype Mulveys from chocolate, as it is suspected that they may be eating themselves.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach was having a tough and uncomfortable Leaders’ Questions under intense scrutiny on both the nurses and the children’s hospital. When he came to answering questions on the hospital, he found himself in the unusual and somewhat unpleasant situation of having Opposition TDs openly laughing at him. That doesn’t happen too often.

(And that was before Catherine Connolly, Independent TD for Galway, tore into him for the lack of progress on providing operating theatres in Merlin Park Hospital, his lack of up-to-date information on the situation and his sidestepping of the issue by repeating old information to her and the Dáil with details they already knew months ago.)

Humongous

Before that, Labour leader Brendan Howlin, a former minister for public expenditure and reform, was astonished at how long to took for his successor, Paschal Donohoe, to be informed of the humongous cost overrun on the children’s hospital.

“Surely as the Minister overseeing public spending, he would have received monthly, if not weekly, updates on the progress of a project of this scale and significance. Why did it apparently take three months for the Minister for Health to inform the Minister for Public Expenditure about major cost overruns in the flagship programme of the Department of Health?”

Brendan was almost speechless, but not quite. “It is unimaginable that the Minister for Public Expenditure was kept in complete ignorance of public expenditure,” he spluttered.

We were reminded of Paschal, who will not have been happy at his treatment in the Irish Mirror on Tuesday, where they did a mock-up photo of him, complete with little black moustache, as Manuel, the Spanish waiter in Fawlty Towers whose catchphrase was: “I am from Barcelona. I know nothing.”

On Morning Ireland on Monday, he rolled up his trademark cotton wool carpet of words, explaining his version of the cost explosion and how everything will be fine in the end.

“As you know now, there is a review under way of all of these systems at the moment, led by PWC, and that will yield learnings for us regarding the nature of the governance that we had there,” he declared.

Learnings? Never mind Manuel, that’s like something Borat would say.

But back to the Taoiseach, who said during Leaders’ Questions: “When I found out about it in November, around the same time as the Minister for Public Expenditure, I responded in the same way as other people in this House. At first, disbelief, struggling to believe how the prices had gone up again.”

Derision

Snorts of derision went up from the Opposition.

“Three months,” marvelled the Fianna Fáil leader, as astonished as his Labour counterpart at the length of time it took for the people in charge of the budgetary bottom line to twig that the costs were spiralling.

“Were ooo asleep?” asked Michael Healy-Rae, brandishing a copy of the Dáil record from March 2017 when the rural Independents lost a motion aimed at forcing the Government to pay closer scrutiny to the building project which was already worryingly over budget.

“This is a hundred-year project,” he cried, although he may have meant the length of time the country will finish paying for it

“There’s a vast crater in St James’s and, having dug themselves into this hole, the Government seems to have no choice but to keep digging and try to find a way out,” was Brendan’s conclusion. For the rest of the exchange, Mattie McGrath, who favoured the green field site option off the M50 motorway for the project, kept shouting, “black hole . . . he’s falling into the hole,” and called for the health and public expenditure Ministers to be fired.

The Taoiseach fell back to extolling all the wonderful facilities the hospital will have when built (and hang the cost).

“This is a hundred-year project” he cried, although he may have meant the length of time the country will finish paying for it.

And then it was time once more for Leo’s Wildean Reverse.

“We must never forget the value of this project,” he told the Dáil. Again.

“Aaah, don’t start,” harrumphed Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen.

Leo’s Wildean Reverse sets Oscar’s famous line about people “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing” on its head.

The Taoiseach and his Government, it seems, when it comes to the children’s hospital, know the value of everything but the cost of nothing.

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