Miriam Lord: Never mind the cost overruns that nobody noticed. Just think of the children

The Government is only talking millions. Piffling amounts

Televisions in Arnotts display Minister for Health Simon Harris apologising to the Dáil for not providing more information in reply to a parliamentary question about the cost of the national children’s hospital. Photograph: Alan Betson

Televisions in Arnotts display Minister for Health Simon Harris apologising to the Dáil for not providing more information in reply to a parliamentary question about the cost of the national children’s hospital. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Before anybody goes looking for any more apologies, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform would respectfully like to make an important clarification for the sake of completeness and clarity, now that the numbers have crystallised.

When the Minister, with the utmost humility, suggested the Government would only be short a paltry €99 million out of its huge €1.5 billion spending allowance (nobody will even notice it’s missing), he wasn’t entirely giving the full facts.

This is because at the time of answering he was in front of microphones in the courtyard of Government Buildings and the Taoiseach was in front of a microphone in Dáil Éireann. But the Taoiseach furnished an ever so slightly different figure to the one advanced by Paschal Donohoe.

Leo Varadkar said €100 million.

This is the amount, he told the Dáil, which must be shaved from the Government spending budget for this year due to the huge cost overrun for the new national children’s hospital. But there is nothing to worry about as the projects affected will not be scrapped, but deferred.

Deferred or “re-profiled”.

But whatever about €99 or €100 million, €24 million is a mere bagatelle. Maybe a little tweaking of the adult nappy allowances, a slight readjustment of the barely there home help hours for people who desperately need more help at home, a reimagining of the number of chairs available in accident and emergency units

What happens to the deferred projects and €100 million which people won’t miss? Will they be rolled over next year into another batch of deferrals when more bills arrive from the children’s hospital? Defying final calculation until the final figures crystallise sometime in the future?

Of the amount which must be clawed back now, in what both Varadkar and his Minister for Finance insist will be a relatively painless exercise, €24 million has to come from the health budget. No great detail on where those savings might be found, but trust us say Leo and Paschal, they won’t be noticed.

‘Unscrupulous politicians’

No big projects will be cancelled, despite Varadkar bitterly predicting to Opposition TDs that “unscrupulous politicians from all over the country” will now try to exploit the budgeting woes besetting the new hospital by blaming everything that goes wrong in their constituencies on the minor deferred and re-profiled schemes which won’t have any noticeable impact on anything.

Although when he was doing his thing in the courtyard, the Minister for Finance was very hazy on where the money would be found in the area of health.

But whatever about €99 or €100 million, €24 million is a mere bagatelle. Maybe a little tweaking of the adult nappy allowances, a slight readjustment of the barely there home help hours for people who desperately need more help at home, a reimagining of the number of chairs available in accident and emergency units.

It isn’t like that famous saying from an old time American politician: “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

The Government is only talking millions. Piffling amounts.

So never mind the cost overruns that nobody noticed. Just think of the children. And think of Donohoe, who always likes to be totally accurate. Donohoe, we imagine, is anxious to set the record straight. He wouldn’t want to end up in the same boat as the Minister for Health, who is sooo responsible for the cost overrun crisis currently afflicting the Government that he had to come into the chamber on Tuesday and make a very, very speedy apology before fleeing minutes later.

Donohoe, on the other hand, is only the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure, who doesn’t like spending money until €100m has to be sacrificed and then it’s just loose change. He didn’t notice, or his people, didn’t notice what Health Minister Simon Harris, or his people, didn’t notice either.

But Harris was caught first.

He had to come into the House and, rightly, apologise for not giving full information of the ballooning costs of the children’s hospital, despite being in possession of the relevant figures.

“I should have answered it more fully as it would never be my intention to mislead this House,” he said, apologising “sincerely” to the Dáil and, more specifically, to Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen who asked the question in the first place.

So we would like to point out, on behalf of the Minister for Finance that when he talked of €99 million, what he really meant to say was “€99,999, 999.99”.

Or naanty-nahn, naanty-nahn, naanty-nahn, naanty-nahn if this Government were for sale in Power City.

Head on a plate

One way or the other, Sinn Féin wanted a resignation. It’s been ages since Mary Lou McDonald and her TDs demanded a head on a plate. So they were happy to call for Harris to resign, although if he could have taken Varadkar and Donohoe too that would have been brilliant.

The Fianna Fáil leader is sick and tired of their constant demands for heads on plates. Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin deputy leader, was loudly shouting for summary justice when his leader left the chamber.

“Can you ask him to stop shouting,” Josepha Madigan pleaded to the Ceann Comhairle as Pearse turned up the volume.

“He’s the angriest man in Ireland, for God’s sake,” sighed her ministerial colleague, Regina Doherty.

But Sinn Féin’s John Brady wasn’t having it.

“It is the anger of the people of Ireland,” he shouted, dignifying Pearse’s latest explosion with nationhood.

But back to Micheál Martin.

“I often compare Sinn Féin’s approach to the Clint Eastwood fillums of long ago: When the cowboy rolls into town the first thing he did was reach for the holster,” remarked the Fianna Fáil leader. The Shinners first instinct is to reach for a motion of no confidence.

Let it be known that Clint Eastwood is not and never was a member of the IRA.

Perhaps the strangest political occurrence on Tuesday, and most definitely a very rare one, was the many apologies given by both the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach for “underestimating” the cost of the hospital. (Although in truth, Varadkar was very squarely blaming the very qualified experts his Government placed on the board).

It must be the first time in history that politicians have been caught out, confessed to and apologised for underestimating something. All they do is overestimate things – all they have done, what they will do and how generally wonderful they are.

They were still underestimating on Tuesday.

As TDs called for a debate on the Minister’s apology and demanded he return to the House to answer questions, the Taoiseach pointed out that Harris has already spent nine hours answering questions before committees.

They didn’t estimate that he will now have to do another 80 minutes in the chamber on Wednesday.

“Will urgently need space to quiz him,” bellowed Doherty.

“Minister Harris has no problem answering questions,” said Varadkar. “Minister Harris likes answering questions,” he added, as the smell of burning carpet left behind from Simon’s rapid exit from the chamber still lingered.

Labour’s Brendan Howlin called for Paschal to be hauled in as well.

Probably not, now that we’ve clarified things for him.

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