Pat Leahy: Fine Gael should learn a lesson from Bertie on humility

Ex-taoiseach never forgot public service shortcomings when trumpeting achievements

There are some things the Government controls, and there are things that the Government doesn’t control, the Taoiseach told the farmers last week.

He was attending the swanky Marker Hotel amid the glass and steel towers of Dublin's Silicon Docks on Wednesday morning for a conference about promoting gender equality in the workplace (very Varadkar, you'd have to say). The farmers were sitting in their tractors around Stephen's Green because they can't make a living (very farmers, too, I suppose).

Later in the week, commenting on the imbroglio of the Dáil printer, Varadkar was pretty sure that printing TDs' tat is one of the things that the Government doesn't control. Correct, of course: this particular shining example of consequence-free mismanagement is the responsibility of the Oireachtas, not the Government.

Diligent study of the Bertian Era will tell Varadkar that achievement in Government requires a mixture of boldness and realism

Mind you, one could point out that frittering away taxpayers’ money is not something with which Varadkar’s administration is entirely unfamiliar.

But the point stands, and Varadkar is right: there are things that the Government can do, and things that it can’t do. But there are also things the Government should do.

Varadkar is a long-time student of politics; these days, he is also a student of government. Good: it takes time to understand how the great machine of government works, where the short cuts are, how to pull its levers and how to best coax, cajole and prompt it towards particular goals. Though he derides it in Micheál Martin, experience in office is an asset. It is why, for example, he entrusted the scaldiest of hot potatoes – broadband – to grizzled old warhorse Richard Bruton, rather than one of the chinless YFG types.

Bertian Era

One of Varadkar's fields of study of late, I am told, is the career of one B Ahern. At the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday he told his TDs that Ahern never won any byelections but won three general elections – a talking point for the weekend if the worst happens for Fine Gael, obviously.

(Interestingly, he also told them that irrespective of the results today, all four Fine Gael candidates will be TDs after the next election, before correcting himself: “Well, three out of four.”)

Diligent study of the Bertian Era will tell Varadkar that achievement in Government requires a mixture of boldness and realism; an abundance of patience but also the application of constant pressure. Also humility. Also empathy.

When the Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell described conditions in Crumlin children's hospital last week in vivid detail, it did not come as a surprise to anyone who has attended at an emergency unit lately. An outbreak of flu-like viruses has greatly exacerbated the already well-advanced chaos in many A&E units in recent weeks. The misery and discomfort has to be seen to be believed. People who have to experience this are not just annoyed at the failure of the service: they are furious about it.

Reform is difficult to achieve in a system where too many people want to do what they've always done because it suits them

Running hospitals – and other public services – is the thing that the public expects the Government to do. But, actually, how much of a priority is it for the Government? Lots of people around Government tell me that the political damage from the health issue will be minimal because it’s been going on so long, the public thinks it can’t be fixed and “they’re all to blame”.

“I don’t believe you lose votes over trolleys,” says one person, voicing the views of many others. The truth is that everything – everything – in Government is now seen through the prism of the next election.

I was upbraided by a senior civil servant when I ventured the trolleys-don't-cost-votes argument. Come on, he said: how can we be the only country in Europe that can't run a half-decent health service?

Well-known solutions

The rather depressing thing is that most of the measures that would alleviate the acute crisis in hospitals have been well known for ages. Step-down beds to move patients on from hospital care, thus allowing suitable A&E patients to be admitted. More access to GP care so unsuitable cases don’t come to A&E.

More staff working in the areas they are needed in, at the times they are needed. The constant application of weekly targets. Getting rid of managers who don’t perform. Changing the way staff work even when they don’t like it. Telling people not to turn up at hospitals when they don’t need to. New money, sure, but smartly spent. Lots of patience, constant pressure.

But of course if it was easy, they’d have done it by now. The fact is that reform, investment and improvement are very difficult to achieve in a system where too many people want to do what they’ve always done because it suits them.

Ministers point to the thriving economy as their greatest electoral asset, and it’s easy to see why. Incomes up, poverty down. Win on the economy, win on Brexit, draw on health, lose on housing is the shorthand of one person at the centre of Government for Fine Gael’s route back to power.

But that requires a humble and nuanced acknowledgement of failure in some areas, along with a firm purpose of amendment. It requires a plan for the future. I don't think many people currently buy the notion that Sláintecare is improving the health service on the ground, or that Rebuilding Ireland is solving the housing crisis.

Bertie Ahern was very good at using the economic boom for electoral advantage, but he never, ever ignored public services and he was also very good at playing the economy in a humble way – yes, we hear you, we know it should be better, we're workin' hard to make it better, and if you give us a chance, we'll work even harder. That is not, frankly, a message that one hears from this Government. It's true that there are things that government can't do. But people are more interested in the things it can do, and should do.