“But lookit. That doesn’t matter. That’s just a sideshow.”
Of course it didn’t matter, even if it was the very first thing the Taoiseach mentioned in his carefully prepared opening reply.
And it wasn’t just any old sideshow either. It was a slick hit-and-run operation, over in a matter of seconds. Amazing the way Leo was able to manoeuvre that bus into the Dáil chamber, reverse it over a ministerial predecessor and then speed away as if nothing had happened.
All he was doing was correcting the record to avoid adding to the confusion over what ministers for health might have been in office when secret documents landed on their desks outlining the State’s sneaky legal strategy to deter people going to court to seek money rightfully due to them for wrongly charged nursing home fees.
Miriam Lord’s Week: Mary Lou McDonald and Jeffrey Donaldson learn there’s no partition in economy class
One such document was dated 2016, when Leo Varadkar was in charge of the Department of Health.
Did he really know nothing about it? This long-running policy designed to minimise claims and subsequent pay-outs may have been within the law, but it was a mean-spirited tactic cynically aimed at often poor and vulnerable people without the wherewithal, support or confidence to take on the government’s legal machine. Did this not cause him some disquiet?
[ State could not support withholding of disability allowance payments, says Taoiseach ]
[ Law, money and morality at issue in nursing home charges legal strategy ]
[ Nursing home charges: Government’s defence of legal strategy rejected by former investigator ]
Well, it might have done, had he seen it. But…
“What I can say is that a document that appeared in the papers yesterday in relation to 2016 – we have confirmed from the Department of Health that I was not circulated on that document,” the Taoiseach told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (and everyone else wondering about it).
Some things just can’t wait until next week, when the controversy over these historic nursing-home charges will be fully debated in the House after the Attorney General has prepared a report and all radiators have been thoroughly inspected for documents which may have slipped down behind them.
The 2016 file was to do with an agreement finalised by the minister and the attorney general at the time.
“I was not the minister who made that agreement. It was a 2014 agreement,” said Leo. Nothing to do with him.
He explained to Mary Lou the way things work in government. A generous gesture, as she is nursing high hopes of winning the master key to the executive toilet in Merrion Street after the next general election.
“As you may know,” he began, fully aware that she doesn’t and fully determined that she and her party never will, “when civil servants talk about ‘ministers’, they often talk about ‘The Minister’ in the context of the corporation sole, not necessarily the person who was the minister on the day.”
We know now that this is what he said. That is not how some listeners heard it.
For God’s sake, what even is “the corporation sole”?
What most people heard Leo tell the Dáil on Wednesday was, “when civil servants talk about ministers”, they often talk about “The Minister” in the context of the “Corporation’s Hole”.
The bickering went back and forth. It won’t help any of the people who suffered loss and hardship as a result of legal strategies pursued by the State against people least equipped to withstand them
And that was how a complicated case about memos flying around government offices at various junctures over a 30-year time span – explaining how to lawfully do unfortunate divils out of their few bob – became completely bewildering.
“But lookit,” concluded the Taoiseach – having solved the mystery, exonerated himself and left deep tyre-marks down the flattened back of Dr James Reilly, who WAS the Minister for Health back in 2014 – “that doesn’t matter. That’s just a sideshow.”
Leo didn’t identify anybody by name, but he didn’t have to. This is most unfair to poor aul Dr Reilly, who may also be a victim of civil service context as he too was the Corporation’s Hole when he was minister.
It seems the phrase means a minister is legally responsible for everything done by everyone in their department. The Minister is the Department. The life and corporation soul of it.
After that thrilling clarification, the session settled down into the usual exchange of unpleasantries between Leo and Mary Lou.
She confronted him with the nasty reality of government strategies (a second historic instance of disabled people being denied State allowances having emerged overnight) which tell “a sordid tale of successive governments involving Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the late Progressive Democrats actively working against the interests of some of our most vulnerable citizens”.
He reprimanded her for repeatedly twisting his words. “I still can’t fathom why you always feel the need to misrepresent what I say in this House, and what the Government says.”
Later on, the Sinn Féin leader moved from documents outlining the legal strategy for dealing with nursing home claimants to others giving details of how maintenance payments were wrongly withheld from disabled people.
She rounded on the Taoiseach. “Why did you do nothing about that, and how is it that, 12 years on, you continue to deny these vulnerable citizens what is rightfully due to them?”
He looked thoroughly fed up.
“There really is no allegation you wouldn’t just throw out there,” he told her. “There really isn’t,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Like, there are members of the Opposition who at least have some sense of truth. Like, there is NOTHING you wouldn’t throw out there, Deputy.”
The bickering went back and forth. It won’t help any of the people who suffered loss and hardship as a result of legal strategies pursued by the State against people least equipped to withstand them.
The leader of the main Opposition party was fighting a real-time battle using historic injustices to inflict damage on a Government she wants to oust. The Taoiseach was fighting a real-time battle to justify ongoing policies which gave rise to those legacy scandals while trying to protect his Government.
People cannot vindicate their rights unless they launch a legal action, whereupon the State fights it tooth and nail, finally settling on the steps of the courthouse with anyone who is solvent and tenacious enough to keep going
It was Labour leader Ivana Bacik who saw the bigger picture.
She put into perspective the real problem behind the controversy, one which is as relevant now as it was years ago when the two sorry episodes currently in the spotlight happened.
On Sunday, the story was about the illegal charging of elderly people in nursing homes over three decades. The following night it was the removal of a disability allowance from up to 12,000 people in institutional care.
“Perhaps tomorrow we’ll see yet another story of a group of people being failed by the State.”
But this was part of a much bigger story.
“The real story, as we see it, is the pervasiveness of what amounts to a callous legal strategy,” she said. “And it happens everywhere.”
The State approaches litigation as if it were a private company defending its patch, carrying on a war of attrition against anyone who dares to sue it.
People cannot vindicate their rights unless they launch a legal action, whereupon the State fights it tooth and nail, finally settling on the steps of the courthouse with anyone who is solvent and tenacious enough to keep going, thus avoiding a public hearing and an adverse precedent which might encourage others.
“People who can endure the cost and stress of years of litigation get their legal rights. Those who can’t, don’t.”
It happens everywhere, said lawyer Bacik, speaking from personal experience.
The time has come to change the Government’s legal approach. The general secretaries of Government departments should have to explain what legal strategies they have in place. The role of the Attorney General should be re-evaluated.
If anything is to come from these historic controversies, maybe it is time to overhaul the State’s legal strategy?
This could be “a watershed moment” she told the Taoiseach. The Attorney General, when giving legal advice, would have to take the common good and public interest into account, as well as the more narrow financial interests of the government of the day?
The Taoiseach thought about it. But “you can only spend one euro once”, he remarked. Money spent to rectify sins of the past will mean less money for Government to spend today.
It all turned rather philosophical.
“But what is the common good…” Leo mused at one point.
It certainly isn’t prosecuting a tawdry policy against deserving potential litigants who are denied fair play because they aren’t wealthy or clued-in enough to fight their corner.
“This is a legacy issue that must be resolved,” urged the Labour leader.
Then again, if the Government holds it ground, this issue will pass.
It’s only a sideshow.