THAT was clearly the worst week for Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and the two Government parties since the general election in February. Is the honeymoon over already? We will know in time. It is one thing to make false promises during an election campaign but to deny having made them, as Kenny did at the weekend in relation to Roscommon hospital, is a far more serious matter.
The Labour Party is not blameless either. Gilmore also promised the Labour Party in Government would keep emergency services at Roscommon open for 24 hours, seven days a week. He is also opposed to cut-backs at his local hospital in Loughlinstown in his own constituency of Dún Laoghaire.
The fact is the credibility of the Government is already in tatters.
To cap it all for Fine Gael, the party hierarchy got the last candidate they wanted for the presidency in Gay Mitchell. They now believe they are going to have an uphill battle on their hands if they want to win the presidential election in October. They never expected that Gay Mitchell would emerge as the party candidate and would have been happy with either Pat Cox or Mairéad McGuinness.
All politics, they say, is local and no politician, no matter what party he belongs to, is going to say he is in favour of closing down or downgrading services at his local hospital. Even if a reliable and independent body, such as the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), reports that patient safety at that hospital is at risk. Even if it were quite clear that patients would be far better treated at a bigger hospital with far better facilities elsewhere.
That’s because people will always have a sentimental attachment to their own local hospital and will not vote for somebody who does not promise to at least maintain, if not improve, services at the local hospital, be that in Roscommon, Ennis, Mallow, Sligo or elsewhere.
It is not today nor yesterday that politicians first came up against this issue. I well remember the uproar that greeted Labour’s Barry Desmond, Minister for Health in Garrett FitzGerald’s coalition government of the early 1980s when he announced the closure of eight local hospitals with one stroke of the pen, remarking that Ireland had too many hospitals. You may also remember that Des O’Malley, that fine example of high moral and fiscal rectitude, baulked at the idea of closing down Barrington’s Hospital in Limerick.
Politicians will always toe the party line, except when it clashes with local issues, whether you are talking about hospitals, schools, dumps or the housing of Travellers.
They will always tell you when they clash with the party line that it was a matter of conscience. So that you will look on them as men of honour, who will always stand by their principles and put the party second.
They will never tell you that it was a matter of survival. They will never admit when they resign from the party whip that they had no choice. That if they didn’t defend the local issue – be that a hospital or an airport – they would lose their seat at the next election.
Fine Gael TD for Roscommon, Denis Naughten, might have shown more courage if he toed the party line and refused to be intimidated by his constituents on the hospital issue. But to give him his due, he didn’t do what Kenny and Gilmore did and that is pretend the situation about Roscommon hospital changed since the election with the HIQA report about patient safety at the hospital.
The only thing that has changed since the Fine Gael and Labour leaders made those rash promises is that they are now Taoiseach and Tánaiste respectively, whereas then they were only leaders of the Opposition.
If you are an Opposition leader or speaker, you can afford to be irresponsible. But in government you are expected to take tough decisions come what may.
It is no use saying people should never be irresponsible. The fact is that if they make unpopular statements in Opposition, they will not be elected.
In relation to Roscommon hospital, they were never going to say that if elected to power they would close down the emergency services there and that patients would have to travel to Galway instead. That might be a credible statement to make. But if they said that, they would not have two Fine Gael TDs returned at the election and the Labour candidate might just as well have retired from the fray. The whole purpose of the election campaign for them was to have as many Fine Gael and Labour TDs elected as possible.
Now, in hindsight, they are probably sorry they gave such cast-iron guarantees about the future of the hospital. They surely know now that they could have fudged the matter some way and still have two Fine Gael TDs elected. They could have said they were awaiting the HIQA report before making any commitment.
Now they are left with a lot of egg on their faces and it is not going to get any better for them.
There is a tough road ahead. There are several more hospitals around the country due to be downgraded. There is the matter of cut-backs to the school transport system. Then there is the question of third-level fees, not to mention the Budget in December with cuts of up to €4 billion expected. Not to forget about the bond holders they promised to burn, nor that Frankfurt’s way was not Labour’s way.
The Government, however, has a large majority and can afford to lose a number of TDs along the road and the next general election is a long way off. They can and should take the tough decisions sooner rather than later. There is always the hope that things will improve next year and if not, perhaps the year after that, or maybe the following year.
But let them be warned: Fianna Fáil also thought that and where are they now?