Kathy Sheridan: Truth matters little in Irish political crises

McCabe and CervicalCheck episodes show harm done by political posturing

Minister for Health Simon Harris, whom former HSE chief executive Tony O’Brien accused of being “a frightened little boy” who “runs scared of headlines”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for Health Simon Harris, whom former HSE chief executive Tony O’Brien accused of being “a frightened little boy” who “runs scared of headlines”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Tony O’Brien chooses his words carefully, wrote Susan Mitchell in that four-page interview published last weekend. It was immediately before she reported his contemptuous dismissal of Minister for Health Simon Harris as “a frightened little boy”; one who “runs scared of headlines”. He struck to wound.

The problem with those few lines uttered by the former chief executive of the Health Service Executive in the Sunday Business Post is that they ensured his most important message was hijacked by his own mouth.

Ask any casual news consumer what they remember from that interview.

Was it the “frightened little boy” bit or O’Brien’s take on Harris’s decision to offer a reassuring smear test to every woman in the country in the wake of the unfolding CervicalCheck scandal?

‘Panicked response’

O’Brien said he saw it as a “panicked response” and warned the Minister that GPs would be deluged with requests. If women wanted reassurance, their original smear tests could be reread, O’Brien advised.

What O’Brien said made perfect sense. The upshot of Harris’s decision was that women are now waiting months for smear test results. Think of the worry and ramifications down the line.

But I also know I was not the only parent urging their daughters to make a repeat appointment for a smear test in midst of the unfolding crisis.

Amid the game-playing and the soundbite, immeasurable harm was being done. Now the dust has settled how many politicians or journalists have examined their consciences?

O’Brien did not hold back on his thoughts about how politicians and media behave amid a scandal at full throttle. What he witnessed, he said, was “the duplicity and utter hypocrisy of politicians who will, at one and the same time, wear the green ribbon for positive mental health while cynically monstering citizens who happen to be in public service, in order to score cheap populist attention-grabbing points and get themselves news coverage that they would not otherwise get. At the same time, I gained an appreciation of what it is to be targeted by sections of the media working in an unspoken but implied alliance with those politicians.”

If this sounds a tad self-pitying, remember that some of O’Brien’s staff received death threats, including a bomb threat to a family home. There were accusations of corporate manslaughter and calls for O’Brien’s arrest.

Former HSE director general Tony O’Brien was scathing about how politicians and media behave amid a scandal at full throttle. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Former HSE director general Tony O’Brien was scathing about how politicians and media behave amid a scandal at full throttle. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

He had a point about politicians. I recall trying to explain to a friend that there was plenty to be angry about but that it was not true that doctors or the HSE were aware that women had cervical cancer and hadn’t bothered to tell them.

Her response was to pull up a tweet from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: “Women’s lives were put in jeopardy by the HSE withholding information on false negative smears with the women”.

McDonald was not the only politician making hay out of the crisis. At the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, Senator Marc MacSharry spoke about “gross systemic failure” and added: “People are dying.” He also made headlines.

The HSE contributed to the debacle. Its initial response was a “train wreck” in O’Brien’s own words. That was on him as chief executive. It failed to communicate the complex distinction between a screening programme and diagnosis. It failed to give reassurance that the programme was effective. It also had no substantive answer to accusations of negligence.

But in its defence it faced an almost impossible task. It was confronted by a political and media culture often guided by the stupid, macho old saw that “if you’re explaining you’re losing”. Facts that threatened to disprove a false or dubious assertions were pre-emptively dismissed.

If Harris was running scared of headlines in this environment, it’s hardly surprising.

Immeasurable harm

But amid the game-playing and the soundbite, immeasurable harm was being done. Now the dust has settled how many politicians or journalists have examined their consciences? How many are prepared to speak out about the harm done to public trust?

It would be a useful exercise for every senior schoolchild in the country to study the way the CervicalCheck story played out in political, media and HSE circles alongside the facts established by Dr Gabriel Scally’s report into the crisis.

They could also look the case of Frances Fitzgerald, who resigned “selflessly” in November last year to save the Government after being accused in the Dáil of knowingly allowing a malicious legal strategy to be pursued against Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe. She was substantially exonerated by the Charleton tribunal when it reported last month.

Towards the end of one radio discussion on the day the Charleton report was launched and in the light of her exoneration, the presenter asked if perhaps Fitzgerald was owed an apology by some of her Dáil accusers.

Cue silence, broken by one astounded media panellist: “But that’s politics! That’s just politics!”

It is. And shouldn’t that be a cause for concern?

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