Swindlers still thrive in our amoral public realm

 

A proposed private hospital for Sligo is a microcosm of this country’s staggering political hypocrisy, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

MICHAEL CLARKE is a scam-merchant, a conman, a fraudster.

In 2002, he was sent to jail for two years for his part in a conspiracy to defraud the State (that’s you and me) of tens of thousands of euro. A corrupt Department of Agriculture official was making out cheques to non-existent farmers under a dairy hygiene scheme. Clarke was collecting and cashing them.

In the local elections in June, Clarke topped the poll in his area of Sligo. Even Fianna Fáil, for whom he had previously contested elections, had been so embarrassed by him that he had been forced to stand as an Independent. He romped home and declared that the real “jury of my peers” had now spoken.

Also elected to Sligo County Council in June was the former mayor of Sligo, Fianna Fáil’s Rosaleen O’Grady. While in no way comparable to Michael Clarke, she does have an interesting history. In 2004, while on long-term sick leave from her job as a clinical nurse manager with the HSE, she managed to attend a four-day conference of the Confederation of European Councillors in Gibraltar. (“I felt it would do me no harm to go,” she explained to The Irish Times.)

Earlier this month, Rosaleen O’Grady was one of the most enthusiastic supporters on Sligo County Council of a motion proposed by Michael Clarke. The conman suggested the rezoning of a 16-acre site at Carraroe, currently designated as a buffer zone, for a new private hospital. The county manager strongly opposed the motion, but it was overwhelmingly backed by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Clarke suggested that “where people are providing money to put up this hospital, we should take this on board”. O’Grady pointed out that the developers were not strangers: “We are talking about people we know.”

The development of a private hospital in Sligo is appallingly bad public policy. It is bad planning, bad medicine and a waste of public money. Cancer services are being transferred out of Sligo General Hospital. The whole argument for doing so is that patients do better when cancer treatment is concentrated in a few specialist centres. Yet, at the same time, these same services are to be provided, for those who can afford to pay, in a small, non-specialist private hospital. The developers in Sligo cite their intention to provide “first-class medical treatment in areas of high demand such as oncology” and to fill the gap in the market for “radiotherapy in the northwest, and more extensive cancer treatment”.

The intention, clearly, is that this private hospital will be largely funded by the taxpayer. The developers have made no secret of their intention to use the National Treatment Purchase Fund to pay for many of the procedures at the hospital. And they will also hope to benefit from the extraordinary tax breaks that provide €388,000 in capital allowances for every €100,000 invested. This scandalous misuse of public money was supposedly ended in the last budget, but Brian Lenihan added the caveat that arrangements would be made for projects in “an advanced stage of development”. Unsurprisingly, the Sligo developers define their own project as at an “advanced stage”.

For all the rhetoric about national emergencies and pulling together, this is the Ireland in which we still live. It is still a place in which swindlers like Michael Clarke can exert serious influence over zoning and the use of public resources. It is still a place in which staggering hypocrisy rules, so that cancer patients in Sligo are told with a straight face that their public facilities have to be closed in the interests of patient safety, while commercial operations are encouraged to move in and create a market for the same services.

It is still a place in which supposedly scarce public resources are diverted, on an essentially random basis, to schemes for wealthy investors whose only effect will be to copper-fasten apartheid in health care. And it is still a place in which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael operate as a single entity. (Three Fine Gael councillors did oppose Michael Clarke’s motion, but eight supported it.) In many ways this episode in Sligo is a microcosm of what ails us: a political culture that tolerates (and indeed rewards) amoral behaviour; an attitude to public money that sees benefits for the poor as optional extras but benefits for the rich as the natural order of things; and a political consensus in which the supposed alternative is largely embroiled in the same system.

We’re being told (most cogently by Jim O’Leary in last Friday’s Irish Times) that ideas of fairness are essentially irrelevant to our current dilemma. On the contrary, without a revolution in public morality that places equality and decency at the centre of decision-making, the system that has created the crisis will simply carry on. The alternative to fairness is not some kind of idealised, rational economy. It is more of the same gombeenism that has led us to where we are.

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