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Leo's pledge as weak as our health service

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Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

Never make a promise you can't keep. It's one of the golden rules of politics, but Leo Varadkar has taken a disturbingly long time to find out why. The Taoiseach is eating humble pie over his assurances to women left devastated by the ongoing CervicalCheck scandal, but from a political point of view the damage may have already been done.

As usual in these situations, Varadkar has nobody to blame but himself. Speaking at a press conference in Government Buildings on May 11, he declared that no more women who had developed cervical cancer after being given all-clear smear test results would find themselves dragged through the courts.

In other words, he assured the victims of this appalling injustice that the State would settle with them quickly and then go after the US laboratories for damages at a later date.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Varadkar seems to have misunderstood how the law actually works. Because these labs already indemnified the State when their mistakes became clear, they can now call the shots over how any legal cases are defended.

In other words, the Taoiseach made a soothing statement that made him look good at the time, without ascertaining if he had the authority to make it.

Ruth Morrissey is the latest woman whose terrible treatment by the Irish health system has made her a household name. She is a terminally ill young mother suffering from both cervical and breast cancer.

According to one expert's report, if her smear tests had been correctly reported, she would have had a better than 95pc chance of escaping the disease. Now it is too late.

However, instead of resting at home and making plans for their remaining time together, Ruth and her husband are currently in the High Court taking an action against the HSE and two labs.

Her solicitor has revealed that the State Claims Agency made no meaningful attempt to settle, rejecting several suggested dates for mediation and then offering not one cent.

Back to Varadkar's original promise. Yesterday, a shame-faced Taoiseach admitted "I should have been more clear", accepting that anybody has a constitutional right to go to trial if they think it is in their best interest.

Incompetence

He still wants all cases to be settled outside court whenever possible, and revealed that he has asked the State Claims Agency to resume mediation talks with Ruth Morrissey.

With 49 similar legal actions in the pipeline, however, Varadkar needs to realise just how bad this controversy is making his Government look. Everybody in the country now knows about Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathuna, women who have publicly explained in heartbreaking detail how their lives were torn apart by state incompetence.

To put it mildly, the sight of a bald-headed cancer victim giving tearful evidence to 17 defence lawyers about how her daughter has said "Mammy, please don't die, I love you" is yet another sign that something has gone very badly wrong.

There are also some more fundamental questions to be asked here. Just how serious is Varadkar about reforming our shockingly dysfunctional health service? If the Taoiseach can get caught out on such important points of detail, how does he plan to give it the comprehensive surgery it so obviously needs?

According to Varadkar's own mother, at the age of seven or eight he told a shopkeeper in Blanchardstown: "I want to be Minister for Health." After finally landing the job in 2014, however, he became increasingly fed up with how little power he actually had.

As a result, he went to Taoiseach Enda Kenny after the last election and gave him an ultimatum - I'll only stay if you give me more money, more flexibility on hiring staff and more of your personal support.

In the end, Kenny resolved this stand-off by simply moving him to another Cabinet position. Now Varadkar is running the show, and it seems only fair to ask why he has not given Health Minister Simon Harris the extra resources he once demanded for himself.

True, his Government is officially committed to the all-party ten-year plan Slaintecare, but the pace of implementation has been painfully slow and many health professionals have already warned that it may be basically unaffordable.

Meanwhile, Varadkar's former coalition partners in Labour are describing his behaviour over the CervicalCheck scandal as "unforgivable". It will be interesting to see how many voters take the same attitude.