Sláintecare: Donnelly faces moment of political risk and opportunity

Inside Politics: Minister and secretary general Robert Watt will give update on implementation of plan for healthcare reform

Good morning.

Today’s political action starts in committee room two, in the bowels of the Leinster House complex. It’s an important moment for the two men at the centre of the action – Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and his secretary general, Robert Watt – who are giving an update on the implementation of Sláintecare, the long-term plan for reform and renewal of the State’s healthcare system.

To most observers, that process has entered into choppy waters, with members of the Sláintecare implementation advisory group stepping down in acrimonious and very public circumstances. Allies of the Minister point out the group was only ever advisory in nature, and its term was due to expire soon anyway.

All that may be true, but the resignations have brought public attention to bear on the entire process once again. And, in so doing, they present a moment of political risk, and of opportunity, for Donnelly.


The Minister for Health has had, at best, a mixed bag since he was appointed last year. His handling of the pandemic lacked sure-footedness, and it is questionable to what extent he could reasonably be credited or blamed for the successes or failures of the State’s actions, given the nature of the whole-of-Government response and the prominent role of the Department of the Taoiseach in pandemic policy.

The scale of the threat from the pandemic also put a temporary pause to the usual rigours of healthcare politics in Ireland. Put simply, fighting together against a common foe is in some ways a simpler task than tackling complex problems, fiercely defended fiefdoms and competing (but equally valid) priorities amid limited resources.

Sláintecare is not a creature of the pandemic. Although Covid made, and makes, its implementation more urgent, it was set up beforehand, and it has an entirely different set of goals. Donnelly has allowed the advisory group to fall away, and in so doing, has put his stamp on the process. In reality, implementation of the plan was never going to be down to the advisory group, but its demise means political responsibility for the success or failure of the reforms now lives with the current Minister.

He will appoint a new taskforce on waiting lists, modelled on the successful vaccine rollout body, and led by Watt and HSE chief Paul Reid. It is a key moment for his secretary general too, whose big-money move from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform attracted no shortage of column inches. There will be an expectation that his fabled effectiveness, his capacity to cut through and deliver, is put on show.

That Donnelly is stepping up and putting his stamp on key processes of reform and efforts to tackle long-standing problems like waiting lists is no bad thing. Ministers should be bold in their appetites and ambitions, and back their vision.

His opening statement is packed full of stats, improvements, budget increases and big plans – and a noticeable dig at those who “lambasted” him for saying 70 per cent of the adult population would be given a vaccine by the end of September.

But healthcare reform does not live on a page, nor within one programme, and the effectiveness of health policy is something voters feel tangibly.

Donnelly is taking on some of the most intractable problems in healthcare, and today is a big part of owning, and justifying, that process.

Front page

Our lead today details how the economy is expected to surge back in the coming years but that demand and supply bottlenecks will be a sting in the tail of recovery.

Elsewhere on page one, Kitty Holland covers the apology from Garda commissioner Drew Harris to Dara Quigley's family.

And the front page is completed by Carl O'Brien's piece on anxiety among schoolchildren.

Best reads

Miriam Lord's Dáil sketch covers off life on the roads as the NDP is dealt with in the Dáil.

Simon Carswell's piece on the competing realities of trade and the Brexiteer mindset is here.

Speaking of reality, Kathy Sheridan is writing on the need for a Steve Jobs-style "reality distortion field" to implement Sláintecare.

While Michael McDowell has a harsh verdict on the National Development Plan.


Business kicks off in the Dáil with topical issues shortly after 9am, before the PBP-Solidarity motion on what is likely to be a theme of the winter – energy prices – at 10am.

Leaders’ Questions with Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the Regional Group and the Rural Independent Group is at midday, before questions on promised legislation at 12.34pm.

After 1pm, there’s statements on the National Youth Justice Strategy from the Department of Justice, and the committee and remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Amendment Bill will be heard around 5.30pm.

In the same slot, there is the report and final stages of the Official Languages (amendment) Bill.

Commencement matters are in the Seanad at 10.30am, with the motion on continuation of provisions in the health amendment act at 1pm.

Private members’ business sees the second stage of the registration of wills Bill, before statements to mark dyslexia awareness week at 6pm.

The enterprise, trade and employment committee will hear submissions on the rather appealing notion of a four-day working week at 9.30am. That’s at the same time as the heavyweight draw of the day, Stephen Donnelly and secretary general Robert Watt, at the health committee.

The EU affairs committee is hearing from the Centre for Cross Border Studies on the Northern Ireland Protocol at the same time, and the Social Protection Committee is also hearing on the National Action Plan for Island Development then.

RTÉ director general Dee Forbes is in front of Comhchoiste na Gaeilge at 2pm, and officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Finance are in front of their respective committees at 5.30pm and 1.30pm.