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Fintan O’Toole: Maria Bailey and the snapping of the Irish hard neck

The Irish neck is both very soft and as leathery as an equestrian’s undercarriage

We have some neck. Indeed, the Irish neck is a many-splendoured thing. It is at once incredibly soft and unbelievably hard, as fragile as gossamer and as leathery as an old equestrian’s undercarriage.

The soft neck means we are unusually vulnerable to whiplash injuries. The hard neck allows us to brazen out lavish insurance claims for the pain and suffering they cause us. And this unique combination of qualities means that Irish neck is recognised around the world as an object of rare value. In common with Irish limbs and Irish backs, it fetches a premium price in the courts.

Indeed, an Irish neck is worth many times the value of one that supports a merely British head. Soft-tissue injury claim costs in Ireland are about five times those in the UK. In 2017 the average Irish claim was settled for €20,826. In the UK the equivalent figure was €3,984.

Yet there is increasing evidence that Irish necks are also red with rage and embarrassment about all of this. Listening to the Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey being interviewed by Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ radio this week was like watching a clutch of ducklings waddle into the blades of a combine harvester.


She showed far too much neck to Irish radio’s most ruthless executioner and got it chopped off.

But she was also, in her marvellous mixture of self-pity and self-regard, curiously innocent. For someone in public life and supposedly in touch with public sentiment, she seemed entirely unaware that the mood has changed.

It seems astonishing that Bailey did not notice this shift in public attitudes. There is no evidence of any dishonesty on her part, and her tale of woe about her tumble off a low swing in a hotel bar is undoubtedly sincere.

But she made herself a lightning rod in a much bigger thunderstorm. It did not help that while representing a right-wing party that emphasises personal responsibility for everything, she was apparently claiming that the hotel she sued should have been supervising adults who chose to sit on a swing.

The penny has dropped – or rather the tens of millions of pennies that Irish businesses and customers pay over the odds in insurance costs. It has finally dawned on us that having the most expensive necks in the world is a high-maintenance affair. We all pay for the privilege of this anatomical distinction.

For a very long time, the general attitude to anyone getting a vast payout for a dodgy claim was: “Fair play to you.” Ireland has had a very weak sense of the public good. All institutions and communal systems are “them”, and if you can get one over on them, more power to your elbow.

Surviving remnants

This attitude has not gone away: and in relation to insurance, at least, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid. Irish insurance costs have levelled off, but only after very sharp rises in recent years: in 2018, consumer prices for insurance as measured by the Consumer Price Index were 20-30 per cent higher than in 2014, even though general inflation was extremely low during those years.

These steep costs are one obvious reason for the change of mood. But there is also a more amusing reason: the fatal combination of stupidity and social media.

Previously, if a case even went to court, it was very difficult to challenge a claimant who appeared on crutches wrapped up like a mummy to tell a tale of appalling suffering after a slip on the night-club stairs.

If permanent change is to happen, it will have to affect the chancers who cut corners for profit

Now, a quick search on Facebook and Instagram turns up images of the claimant's personal best in the triathlon and guest appearance with the Bolshoi ballet. These images have encouraged insurance companies to fight claims rather than settling them, and judges to dismiss the more ludicrous of them with costs against the plaintiff.

But they have also dramatised for the general public the general message that there are a lot of chancers out there.

Turning point

The larger question, though, is whether Bailey’s meltdown is a real turning point in the battle to bring insurance costs down to socially sustainable levels.

That will depend on three things. First, public anger at chancers rather usefully distracts from the very healthy profits of the insurance companies. Profits at Aviva Ireland, for example, rose 15 per cent to €113 million in 2018, from €99 million in 2017.

Second, we have to remember that one of the reasons the cost of claims has been so high in Ireland is that the eye-watering level of legal fees makes it too risky for the insurance companies to fight many claims. Unless they have a bang-to-rights Instagram image of the claimant running up Kilimanjaro, they still settle many cases they know to be dodgy.

Consider just one figure here. In 2016 the State Claims Agency, which handles compensation actions against public bodies, settled 284 bills of legal costs. The total amount claimed was €49.2 million. But these bills were settled for €27.2 million – a reduction of 45 per cent on the amount claimed.

So, in one year, lawyers acting in insurance cases involving the State were themselves claiming €22 million more than they finally accepted. There is, so far as I know, no evidence that the loss of this €22 million left our learned friends in penury. They presumably believed the original claims to be fair and reasonable, but that belief did not survive scrutiny.

So it’s not just people who get whiplash on night-club stairs who might be showing a bit of neck here.

Third, we must remember the bitter irony in all of this: that safety standards often really are appalling. Last year alone, 37 people died in workplace accidents, most of them easily preventable. Employers responsible for these fatalities never go to jail – the worst that happens is that their companies are fined.

The same culture that allows some people to chance their arms allows other people to lose their lives. Alongside the hyping up of suffering in exaggerated claims that businesses are responsible for the personal behaviour of their clients, there is a playing-down of the catastrophic personal and social costs of genuine negligence.

As for Bailey’s own particular suffering – the political whiplash from a car-crash interview – it does demand compensation. Not for her, but for the public. It should come in the form of zero tolerance for chancers – and not just the ones who engage in the sob story bingo of exaggerated claims.

If permanent change is to happen, it will have to affect also the chancers who milk the system and the ones who cut corners for profit.