Monday 18 December 2017

Why Harney must halt this crazy hospital plan

We have made so many mistakes in the recent past, and we will pay the price for years. An awful lot of them have been made because of the inability of ministers to listen. And others have happened because of the inability of advisers to speak up.

How different would things be, for example, if advisers had spoken out about the tax breaks that were being created, year after year, to drive the property bubble on? Or if regulators had spoken out about what was going on in the banks? And ministers had listened?

So when a minister makes a policy decision, and appoints a tough-minded and independent person to implement it, and then the person she appointed comes back to her and says it couldn't and shouldn't be done, you'd think she'd listen, wouldn't you? You'd think we'd learned a lesson from the disastrous policy mistakes of the past?


But instead, the minister publicly gets rid of the person who has told her what she didn't want to hear. There is surely a fundamental issue of public accountability here.

The minister, of course, is the Minister for Health, Mary Harney. When she wanted to build a national children's hospital, she appointed a man with an international reputation for getting things done -- and getting them done right -- in Philip Lynch.

Mr Lynch built his reputation by taking a dusty old business and turning it into an international conglomerate, one of the few Irish multi-nationals in the world. And he did it without ever tarnishing his reputation for honesty and straight-talking. So he was an inspired choice to take on the task of building the national children's hospital.

But after giving it his best shot, he went back to the minister and told her it was an unwise proposition. A lot of people had said that before -- the late Maurice Neligan, for instance, who had been a fan of the proposition, had changed his mind. Not about the need for the hospital, but about where it was to be built.

A host of other medical professionals has advanced arguments against the project too. But it could be said of many of them that they had a vested interest of one sort or another -- they were associated with Crumlin or Tallaght or other places that would have liked a children's hospital of their own.

So the minister and the Government could choose to ignore those views. But how can they ignore the views of the man they asked to run the project? He has told the Government that, in effect, the funding is wrong, the planning is wrong, and the location is wrong.


And he has no axe to grind. The job he agreed to do, to the best of his considerable ability, was to build the hospital where they wanted it built. And now he is saying it's unwise. And for that, he is put in a position where he is effectively dumped, and the project goes ahead anyway.

I've never been convinced about the merits of this project, but I've never felt qualified to make a judgment about the medical issues involved. You can, to a point, see the merit of both sides.

But the Government's reaction to Lynch's honest judgment is a clincher. We cannot proceed to implement a public policy decision, costing hundreds of millions, when the person trusted to implement it says it's not wise to carry on.

If Lynch's reasoning doesn't cause the political system to think again, it proves that we're incapable of learning anything from the public policy disasters of the past.


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