Miriam Lord: Leo’s list of indignities and insults visited on women in Ireland

All sides in the Dáil agreed the CervicalCheck and HSE response is unacceptable

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that he is "full of sorrow" and "very angry on behalf of the 160 or so women who were not told of the results of the audit" when answering questions on the cervical cancer scandal in the Dáil. Video: Oireachtas TV


Women of Ireland: What they don’t know won’t hurt them.

Best say nothing.

Particularly as it’s not a patient safety issue anymore.

Because these particular patients are beyond saving now.

Give them access to information and they mightn’t take it well. They might get emotional and start kicking up. They might even decide to sue.

Women of Ireland: What you don’t know won’t hurt us . . .

Another day in the Dáil and another gallop of TDs into the chamber to agonise over the latest sorry episode concerning this State’s disordered relationship with women from the waist down. More than once, TDs listed the many dangerous indignities visited on Irish women through the decades by a paternalistic establishment.

Screening scandal

The Taoiseach led the way in the afternoon as the cervical cancer screening scandal became the main topic of discussion, running well into the evening with the Minister for Health listening to statements and taking questions for more than three hours.

“I know this whole controversy is having a huge impact on the women of Ireland. It is about women’s health; it’s about women’s lives,” said Leo Varadkar, as women wondered if there will ever come a day when the intimate details of their health and their lives are not dissected and debated and held up for public scrutiny by very important men.

“This comes after a very difficult year with controversies around issues such as #MeToo, sexual harassments and difficult rape trials and other matters as well. And I know this country hasn’t always treated women very well, and in the past and even today perhaps, treats them very badly, whether it is mother and baby homes or Magdalen laundries or the marriage bar or the Hep C scandal.”

As the contributions from TDs piled up, Leo’s initial list was expanded by other speakers.

Of course, the catalogue of insults they reopened was an old one. These things don’t happen in these more enlightened times.

Except they do.

Not just angry, Taoiseach, you should be livid, livid about what’s after happening in these cases

“The saddest thing about this latest scandal is [that] it is just the latest. It’s actually not new to see the State Claims Agency taking people to war . . . It’s not new that the HSE drip-feeds information,” said Independents4Change TD Clare Daly. She referred to what Labour TD Alan Kelly earlier labelled the “bombshell” revelation of the evening, when the Minister for Health revealed he had just been informed that “a potentially considerable number” of women with cervical cancer did not have their screening history reviewed.

“Even tonight you’ve been put in the unenviable position of coming in here with new information, drip-feed, reclarifying the information,” said Daly. She accepted the cancer screening process is not wholly reliable. Mistakes happen no matter what systems are in place and tragedies happen and will continue to happen. How society responds is what matters.


It was agreed by all sides the response by CervicalCheck and ultimately the HSE to the women whose cancer was not detected in their initial tests has been completely unacceptable.

The situation is a mess. Women who have had cervical smears and were given the all-clear are now worrying their results may not have been correct. The Taoiseach made a point of stressing “there is nobody walking around today with a cervical cancer diagnosis from whom that information is being withheld by the HSE.”

He was personally “very angry” that women were not told that following an audit of their tests it was discovered that pre-cancerous cells were not picked up when they had their first check. “I’m a Taoiseach, a doctor and also a brother with two sisters.”

He mentioned his anger twice. “Not just angry, Taoiseach, you should be livid, livid about what’s after happening in these cases,” responded Joan Collins of Independents4Change.

Men in suits

Meanwhile, Alan Kelly couldn’t believe his ears when Minister for Health Simon Harris imparted his new information. It was “a bombshell that you’re after landing in her tonight, which I wasn’t prepared for . . . This is a bombshell. What volume of women haven’t had their cases audited?”

And he looked around the chamber, with its usual overpopulation of men in suits.

“We actually have a big problem in this country protecting women’s health” he declared, adding that Vicky Phelan, the woman with terminal cancer whose diagnosis was missed and who had to take her fight to the High Court, was probably following the debate at home.

“I’m sure she’s watching us all here tonight, fellas,” he said.

Louise O’Reilly, Sinn Fein’s health spokeswoman, echoed remarks made during Leaders’ Questions by Mary Lou McDonald about the decision not to tell women that their first test for cancer should have come up as positive.

“The toxic culture of concealment and harassment pursued by the HSE and Government against women who have been wronged by the State is now in full public view” she said, urging the Minister to ensure that other affected women are not forced to fight the State through the courts as Phelan and others have been made to do.

The Fianna Fáil leader summed up the state of confusion surrounding the story. “Everybody knew but nobody knew, and nobody could tell us anything in the past week. It had to be dragged and drip fed in a frenzied way.”


Mary Lou McDonald homed in on the presumption of medics who decide what a woman with terminal cancer needs to know.

“They passed away not knowing that their cancer should have been caught earlier, that their treatment programmes, prognosis and possibly their outcomes could have been different. They died unaware that this information was known to the HSE and to others.” It was part of a “a toxic culture of concealment and a refusal to take responsibility within the HSE, a culture in which women are literally allowed to die before fault is admitted.”

All day, the questions kept coming for the Taoiseach and his Minister for Health, underlining the sense of confusion and ignorance felt by people trying to fathom the detail of this scandal.

It’s creating a sense of worry where there should be none.

“Across Ireland today, there are many thousands of women terrified following the revelations about the CervicalCheck screening programme,” said Labour leader, Brendan Howlin. What’s to be done to reassure them?

Mary Lou called for the resignation of the head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien.

But the Taoiseach said the full facts have yet to emerge, but he is determined to get to the bottom of the issue. He asked for more time. “I think everyone, even Tony O’Brien, deserves a fair hearing.”

The wonderful women of Ireland, so beloved of all TDs in the Dáil. What they don’t know won’t hurt them

Whatever we do, it should be based on facts. We are letting women down, and letting people’s health down, in particular, women’s health, if we make decisions that are not based on facts.

We are really letting people down, particularly the women of Ireland, with regard to women’s health, if we make decisions that are not based on fact.

Facts are already out there: the Taoiseach outlined some of them, others were added, such as symphysiotomy, maternal deaths, Brigid McCole, Susie Long . . .

And in the chamber, there was the unspoken spectre of the referendum and the further fears of pregnant women who have cancer and how the State might treat them too.

The wonderful women of Ireland, so beloved of all TDs in the Dáil.

What they don’t know won’t hurt them.

What you don’t know won’t hurt us.