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Kathy Sheridan: Is Stephen Donnelly out of his depth as Minister for Health?

Despite his armour-plated confidence, the Fianna Fáiler fails to convince

If Stephen Donnelly is fond of marking anniversaries, he surely raised a glass on Sunday. Four years in Fianna Fáil. Many words of sympathetic coverage in a Sunday newspaper suggesting caddish attempts by colleagues to undermine him. Four years since he abandoned the Social Democrats –the party he co-founded – to become an Independent again, then to join the party which he had catapulted tons of excrement at since his election as an Independent in 2011.

As a simple Fianna Fáil TD in February 2017, he had only his constituents to worry about and used his Sunday newspaper column to explain why he was now on his fourth iteration as a TD in six years. Responders were mean. That evening he tweeted : “Kids are sick, Scotland won, and everybody hates me. Not gonna lie, I’ve had better weekends.”

But he was on his way, hopping aboard a party that at 29 per cent support in the IrishTimes/IpsosMRBI polls had hauled itself from post-crash evisceration to top dog again in just six years. His price was a place on Micheál Martin’s front bench and a shoo-in to Cabinet. In the process he slammed the door on his old SocDem mates’ fingers.

'We are standing on a beautiful, old sinking ship, but I and a few people like me have some of the skills to fix the holes,' he told me while on the canvass in 2011

In an interview with the Harvard Kennedy School journal, he gratuitously savaged the leadership team as “dysfunctional” saying they had “made one bad decision after another. I had hoped to create something fresh, outward-looking, and brave, but it quickly became the opposite. . . ”


Armour-plated confidence

His armour-plated confidence was never in doubt. In 2011 as a complete unknown, he platformed his international experience and knowledge of the International Monetary Fund at a time when the IMF was perceived here as an unknowable, omnipotent beast. His work as a consultant with private equity firms, energy companies and multinational retailers, his articulate, indignant speeches on the scandal of the bank debt projected exactly the kind of chutzpah, combined with financial and commercial expertise required in the time of national humiliation.

“We are standing on a beautiful, old sinking ship, but I and a few people like me have some of the skills to fix the holes,” he told me while on the canvass in 2011. It was a bold claim but risk-free. On the off-chance of his being elected, a newbie Independent TD was hardly likely to get the call to sort out hellish Health.

But that’s precisely where his 10 year strategy landed him. Stratospheric levels of self-confidence are required to stride into the hottest job in Government mid-pandemic, with no ministerial experience of any kind and both your secretary general and chief medical officer vanishing out the door.

He now finds himself centre stage with more work than a political heavyweight of 20 years standing could handle. In addition to a brief to reform the hydra-headed health service he is is responsible for Covid testing, tracking and tracing, the vaccination rollout, the battle against the virus surges and the battle to flatten them, mandatory hotel quarantining, psychiatric patient care, the Children’s Hospital debacle, Cervical Check, competing union demands and a whole lot more.

Questions have been asked as to why other, pandemic-muted, departments such as justice, tourism or transport have not picked up some of the slack. It’s possible that they have, but communications is another salient and serious problem. In the vacuum, it seems to many that a gaffe-prone, uncertain Minister is the boss of bosses in Health.

Internal party spats

On the other hand, what we do seem to know a lot about is who complained about whom at Cabinet (leaked by conscientious Cabinet members obviously). We also hear about internal party spats, inter-party spats and macho talk threatening overthrows (leaked from verbatim reports of parliamentary party meetings that may as well be televised at this stage). While they provide whole minutes of fun for political junkies, for the rest of the population they amplify the idea (often unfair) that politicians are unserious, power-mad buffoons playing games at our expense.

Does a thoroughly fatigued public really need to know that Donnelly’s constituency rival and Cabinet colleague, Simon Harris, may be a tad shruggy about Donnelly’s travails? Everything about Donnelly’s career trajectory to date suggests he can take care of himself. What we really want to know is whether he is in full possession of such facts as can be mustered, can transmit them with some authority and humility and has the trust of his staff, health workers and the people he is there to serve.

Bounced into office

Instead he is viewed as the guy who bounced into office believing himself to be almost uniquely qualified to fix the leaky ship of state. His air of superiority and struggle to convey empathy are remarked upon far too often, even among those who might be loosely described as his own.

The answer to that of course is that airs and attitude shouldn’t matter if outweighed by competence and action. The notion of people only voting for the guy they’d have a pint with died a painful death 13 years ago. Now we reckon we can tolerate boring – but only if loaded with fearsome authority, a sharp intelligence, agility, fearlessness of vested interests, a listening ear and the mindset of a decent human being who sets out to plant magnificent trees whose shade he will never sit in.

Aside from scratchy financial considerations, much hope is invested in the interim (probably incoming) secretary general, Robert Watt, which is good at one level. At another, this is stoked by the sense that Stephen Donnelly cannot cope with the job. Something has to give. They should start by talking to us.