Andrew Lynch: Hospital hold-up is disaster for Harney
WHAT a fiasco. The building of a new national children's hospital should have been one of Mary Harney's crowning achievements as Minister for Health.
Instead, the unseemly row over the building's location means that it is shaping up as one of her most expensive mistakes -- and one of the most tragic as well.
Over the weekend, Harney's mishandling of the situation became clearer than ever.
The former chairman of the hospital board, Philip Lynch, confirmed that he had resigned because of serious funding gaps and planning flaws in the proposal to locate the new facility at the Mater complex in Dublin.
The minister herself then gave a desperately unconvincing interview on RTE radio's Marian Finucane show, in which she was unable to answer any of Lynch's objections but continued to insist: "The train has left the station."
Now Gay Byrne, of all people, has waded into the controversy. As the director of a children's charity that has a direct interest in finding the right location, he says he would devote an entire Late Late Show to the issue if he were still the presenter.
His description of the Mater project as "a turkey" could just as easily apply to Harney herself -- and if she doesn't get a grip on the situation quickly, this is one feathered friend who may not survive another Christmas.
The objections to building the hospital on the Mater site have been obvious from the start.
An artist's impression of the building makes it look alarmingly cramped, like a giant foot squeezed into a tight shoe.
At 1.45 hectares it has just a quarter of the space given to the existing Crumlin children's hospital, which means it requires a 16 storey-structure that would dwarf Liberty Hall.
The funding plans look suspiciously as if they were worked out on the back of an envelope.
Under the current proposals, €110m of the €650m cost needs to come from fundraising and philanthropic donations, while the information technology required could require an additional €100m or more.
As Philip Lynch has pointed out, handing around the bucket might have been feasible a couple of years ago - but today, most of the people who could afford that kind of cash are going into NAMA or trying to avoid bankruptcy instead.
The question that should really worry the parents of sick children, however, is how long it might take to get there.
The streets around the Mater are notoriously congested at peak hours or on days when there's a big match in Croke Park, which means that the smooth running of the hospital would be heavily dependent on public transport links.
The hospital's official plan claims that it takes just 13 minutes to walk there from Connolly Dart station, a ridiculously optimistic assessment that clearly wasn't carried out by someone pushing a buggy.
Harney points out that the McKinsey Report examined all these objections and still decided that the Mater proposal was the correct option.
However, for anyone who's ever struggled to find parking or been caught in a traffic jam around there, the choice remains a mystery.
There have also been claims that the location was chosen because it is bang in the middle of Bertie Ahern's constituency, making it a vanity project to replace his beloved Bertie Bowl.
Whatever the truth of the matter, this should have been resolved years ago. The development board was first put in place in 2007, but so far not a single brick has been laid.
With bickering set to continue and public finances getting worse by the day, there are now real fears the hospital may never be built at all -- which means vulnerable children will pay a heavy price for the incompetence, short-term thinking and sheer pig-headedness being shown by the Government.
Mary Harney's political career has been in critical condition for some time, but with this latest botched operation, it has surely passed the point of no return.