Subscriber OnlyPolitics

Opposition looks to grill Harris over smear tests decision

Inside Politics: Minister will face questions at committee over whether advice was taken on offering free tests after CervicalCheck scandal broke

Good morning.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right”.

This, of course, is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights leader.

Believe it or not, there are similarities between this snippet and recent comments made by both Minister for Health Simon Harris and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on a topic that is proving increasingly controversial.


Mr Harris will appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Health this morning, ostensibly to talk about his department’s budget. But what the Opposition really wants is to grill him on his decision to offer free out-of-cycle smear tests to women this time last year. That decision was a part of the reason for the 80,000-strong backlog of women who are waiting up to 33 weeks for the results of their tests.

Much like a Martin Luther King quote, it seems the feeling among the political establishment is that it was the right decision to extend free smears for concerned women, women who were anxious in the days after the CervicalCheck scandal broke.

At the very heart of this controversy, which has been bubbling away for months, is the one question: did the Minister break with protocol and offer these tests without advice? Or was there actually some advice not to do this?

Shortly after 5pm on April 28th, 2018, Mr Harris tweeted that any woman who wanted a free out-of-cycle smear test could avail of one.

Was he advised not to do so?

Fianna Fáil certainly seem to think so. On Tuesday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said: “The truth matters, and the record of the House matters. The Minister’s story has shifted continuously from January onwards, following questions on this. We need a comprehensive statement from him. On 5 February, he denied that the decision was made against official advice. He said that was not the case. We now know that there was official advice against this decision. Professor Gráinne Flannelly’s submission is one element of that.”

Prof Flannelly - the former clinical director of CervicalCheck - said she had concerns from the get-go on that fateful day in April.

She said that in the hours before the Government announced the plan, she advised against it. Prof Flannelly said she told senior health officials such a plan would “fundamentally undermine the screening programme”. The labs just did not have the capacity, she feared. She said she aired these concerns to a senior official, who subsequently had a discussion with an unnamed official from the Department of Health.

At the nexus of this scandal is a thus-far unreleased email from the Department of Health, an email The Irish Times has asked to have access to multiple times, and has been denied sight of multiple times.

This email was apparently sent in the hours after Ms Flannelly raised her concerns. It was sent by the screening service to the department and put those already aired verbal concerns into writing.

The case against the Government is this: if it was warned by professionals not to do this, if it was told of the consequences, including overloading the system, why did it continue? And why did it say it wasn’t warned?

Mr Harris will be asked today to publish, without delay, all and any advice related to his decision at the time. Watch this space.

What’s the no-deal with Brexit?

Expect a lot of Brexit news today, with a renewed focus on the British political back and forth - reflecting a political system that is desperately trying to find a way out of the current logjam.

Expect as you may, but you probably didn’t expect this belter of a story from Fiach Kelly.

In today’s paper, he outlines how an action plan for Shane Ross for the day of a no-deal Brexit was mistakenly sent to Opposition TD Imelda Munster.

It just so happens this is the TD that the Minister for Transport previously compared to a donkey.

Kelly writes: “The plan detailed the times at which he would execute ministerial orders and make arrangements to keep public transport running between the Republic and Northern Ireland, among other issues, if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal.

“It specifically laid down a list of actions to be taken at set times but was emailed to Sinn Féin transport spokeswoman Imelda Munster by mistake.”

Kelly outlines how the email was mistakenly sent to Ms Munster by officials in Mr Ross’s department.

“In effect, it outlined how and when Mr Ross would enact the measures outlined by the Government in its no-deal planning on the day the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal.”

Here's the report.

Best Reads

The much-anticipated report into the cost over-runs at the national children's report was released yesterday. Here's a report into its main findings by Paul Cullen.

Emmet Malone, ahead of a big day for the FAI today, writes the controversy has echoes of the Olympic Council of Ireland saga.

And on the same topic, Harry McGee writes about how Sport Ireland's decision to suspend funding from the Football Association of Ireland for a breach of funding rules has raised "fundamental and grave questions" about its governance.

Simon Carswell has a worrying story about how small businesses have not taken the necessary steps to prepare for Brexit because they are "time poor".

Lara Marlowe writes about how a vote at the European Council meeting in Brussels will determine whether the UK leaves the union in a no-deal Brexit on Friday or extends the deadline yet again, until May 22nd, June 30th or even into early 2020.


Dáil Éireann

At 10.30am, Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan will take questions.

Leader’s Questions will be taken at noon.

At 12.32pm there will be questions on promised legislation.

Topical Issues will be taken at 14.02pm.

At 14:50pm Private Members’ business will be taken with a Labour motion on housing.

At 16.50pm Government business will be taken on the controversial issue of a directly elected mayor.

At 22.15pm, the Dáil adjourns.


Commencement matters will be taken at 10.30am.

At 11.30am the order of business will be taken.

Then at 12.45pm, Private Members’ business is up. Surprise surprise, it’s the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017.

At 18.00pm Private Members’ business will be taken specifically on the Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019.

At 20.00pm, the Seanad adjourns.


The Joint Committee on Health meets at 9am, in the main to discuss budgets but also to discuss the various controversies engulfing health.

And the big one: at the same time, the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Sport can expect to hear from John Delaney.

At 13.30pm the Joint Committee on Public Petitions will meet.

And at 14.00pm, the Select Committee on Budgetary Oversight will discuss the ESRI publication “Ireland and Brexit: Modelling the Impact of Deal and No-Deal Scenarios”.