Miriam Lord: Micheál repeats his version of the Penneys humblebrag

‘Three hundred years at a tenner!’ Taoiseach cried, as he brooks no dissent on maternity hospital

Back in the olden days before Fianna Fáil monumentally dirtied its bib, young Micheál Martin landed a succession of senior ministries and a place in Irish history as the man who introduced the world’s first indoor smoking ban.

But he was also seen as a very cautious department head with a penchant for deferring tough decisions by forever commissioning reports and setting up committees.

Now that he has finally made it to the Taoiseach’s office, he seems determined to banish that reputation for indecisiveness once and for all. He hasn’t much time to do it.

Unlike the ownership arrangement he is championing for the new National Maternity Hospital, Micheál occupies the most desirable office in Government Buildings on a very short lease and will be out on his ear by December in accordance with the terms of his watertight agreement with Leo Varadkar.

At this point, no matter how much he might hope otherwise, the Fine Gael leader will reimpose a Fine Gael ethos on the Cabinet, making all major decisions on a politically appropriate basis. The thought of this upsets a lot of people. The unsettling De Valera and Lemass iconography will no sooner be down off the walls before Leo and his lot will have statues and portraits of Collins and Davitt littering the place.

So, not much more than six months to cement a legacy. Micheál Martin wants to get this long-awaited hospital project under way immediately. He has no doubt that it is fit for purpose and legally bullet-proof. He will broach no more objections.

The hospital will be built according to his Government’s plan. The Taoiseach was in no mood to entertain Opposition questions on Tuesday, declaring they had been more than answered in the past week.

Across the floor, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and Labour were still pointing up faults in his “watertight” deal but Micheál didn’t want to argue with Mary Lou McDonald, Róisín Shortall and Ivana Bacik. Then he accused Independent TD Thomas Pringle of trying to change the goalposts in the argument.

Mary Lou told him his decision to proceed with the project was wrong.

“You’re wrong,” he told her.

Róisín dismissed as “a charade” his promise two weeks ago to put the proposed deal up for discussion and keep an open mind on suggested changes. Nothing more than a sham, she said.

“Well, I’m clear in my conscience,” he retorted. “As Taoiseach, I’m not prepared to prevaricate. I’m not prepared to allow this to go on for another couple of years with no decision taken. I know how these things can get dragged on and dragged on for a variety of reasons.”

He sure does.

“I am determined that we move on and build modern, proper facilities for women in the 21st century.”

Disappointed Labour

Ivana loftily informed him of “how disappointed” the Labour Party feels over his decision to press ahead and “how much we deplore the Cabinet decision”. That must have cut like a knife.

“What are you deploring?” griped the Taoiseach, getting rattier by the minute with all these niggling questions, which he insisted had been more than comprehensively answered, and then some.

“The ownership issue.”

What more could Micheál say to convince people that the State would own the hospital and, effectively, the land under it? How many more times did he have to utter the magic phrase?

How long is a long lease?

“Three hundred years at a tenner a week!” he cried once more (he meant a year). And that in his book, and in the opinion of the Attorney General and a whole legion of legal experts in the area of water-repellent contracts, amounts to ownership.

He was starting to sound like a political version of the Penneys humblebrag.

“That’s a fabulous looking maternity hospital, Taoiseach.”

“Oh, thanks very much. St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. Only a tenner for 300 years.”

But for all his protestations that the deal is not going to allow religious influence over clinical practice and the SVHG is not going to stiff the State for a fortune in the foreseeable centuries, the Opposition remains sceptical.

“It’s a publicly owned hospital,” he stressed for the umpteenth occasion, this time to Thomas Pringle. Shortall, in the next seat, was shaking her head. She likes nothing about this deal.

“Time will prove this,” sighed Micheál, thoroughly exasperated.

Thomas further irritated him by bringing up the highly contentious “clinically appropriate” phrase, which is in the agreement. Why not simply get rid of it and that would solve everything.

“Why are you so hung up on it when everybody agrees that if those two words were removed from the lease it actually would be acceptable?”

The Taoiseach was at the end of his tether. “For the last two weeks I’ve been arguing about ownership,” and now that issue has disappeared. “This keeps shifting and the goalposts keep changing.”

Clinically appropriate

It was strange that he didn’t take the opportunity to point out that the Cabinet had agreed just a few hours earlier to draft a clarification to the phrase in response to the very negative public and political reaction. But he said nothing, allowing the line to stay out there that the Government was refusing to budge on it for some mysterious and possibly dangerous reason.

Could it be that Micheál is so invested in this deal, so convinced of its utter perfection that he just couldn’t bring himself to admit that “clinically appropriate”, in this unique and delicate situation, was not the best choice of words.

But no, everything is watertight.

Again, the Opposition picked holes in the arrangement. They zoned in on the Taoiseach and his Minister for Health insisting that the State tried up until the last minute to get the SVHG to sell them the land instead of leasing it, but the company was unwilling to do this. And yet, as everyone heard at Monday’s meeting of the health committee, the chairman of the group gave evidence that he had had no direct engagement on this question in the past five years.

“My understanding is the chair is ready to correct the record in respect of that,” was Micheál’s rather terse reply, leading to visions of James Menton being detained over the weekend in a basement room in Government Buildings, tied to a chair and subjected to Stephen Donnelly’s accounts of his time as a management consultant with McKinsey played at full volume on a loop until he cracked.

Anyway, the hospital is going ahead, because the Taoiseach knows the deal is so watertight it is the veritable duck’s arse of government deals.

And the Government has promised to expedite the process, which is great news. Just get on with building the damn thing and with any luck the calls for a public inquiry into the building costs might be ready in less than two years.

Fingers crossed.