Friday, June 15, 2007

Chinese whispers

Yep, it's true. I'm heading East in a month or so, Beijing to be precise.

Myself and Liz are packing up our tent and swanning of for the sake of adventure. Chances are I'll keep writing - once I get my journalism accreditation sorted out with the authorities - but I'm not sure whether I'll be able to access the Blogger account.

Anyway, I'll post up contact details for anybody who might want to contact me in Beijing. In particular, anybody who wants to put freelance work my way is encouraged to get in touch! Email me at with anything relatively urgent. Don't post anything important on the blog please because I don't check it often enough at the best of times.

My mobile is +353 86 856 8710. Hopefully I'll still have that in China, but will post up a new local phone number if/when I get one.

Mary Harney's slight return

Well, that's it. The 2007 Irish General Election is well and truly history. The votes have been cast and counted, a Programme for Government has been hammered out, and...things are a lot like they were before polling day. Sigh.

Most of the same Fianna Failers have collected their seals of office from the President and eased their back sides into ministerial Mercs. The only real difference is we now have two Green ministers - although they are more likely to opt for bicycle saddles than the leather upholstery of a State car.

But my obsession is health. I'll have to admit that I was 99.9% certain that there would be a change of Health Minister, but Mary Harney defied the odds and returns to the toughest portfolio in cabinet.

Maybe I spend too long thinking about the health services, but when the cartoonist at Irish Medical News asked whether he should put money on Harney keeping her job, I sagely advised him not to. He sagely ignored me and slapped E20 on her at 10/1. If he'd been a little quicker, he could have got her at 14/1 - but I'm hardly in a position to criticise.

Apparently the Greens wanted Harney shifted to a cushy number in Foreign Affairs but she was having none of it.

This is a genuinely brave move. She could easily have feigned reluctance and shuffled off on five years of foreign junkets. There's no bad news in Foreign Affairs - unless we get invaded and that hasn't happened in ages.

However, her bravery in asking for the Health Ministry three years ago bought her a lot of public sympathy. She probably looked at how Micheal Martin was doing the job and reckoned she could easily show him up. But things aren't much better now than in 2004.

How much more leeway is this latest act of self-sacrifice going to buy her? Before the election, it seemed like everybody thought health was the big issue. The hospitals were in a mess, the service was being privatised and health staff were on the streets. But somehow, nobody thought it was Mary's fault.

Obviously the problems weren't all down to her - and she's making an honest effort to shake things up - but there's a bizarre double-think at play here that allows the public to be furious about how the health services are being run, while still backing Harney to the hilt.

Still, maybe continuity is better than handing over to somebody who will spend two years undoing Harney's policies before trying to put their own stamp on it - only for the baton to be passed again and the process repeating itself.

And, as the Minister herself has pointed out (while holding back a smirk), the opposition's main health spokesperson and a bunch of independent hospital candidates were all given the boot by the electorate. Harney has a mandate.

Even her controversial (and in my view, poorly thought out) plan to build shiny new private hospitals next door to run-down old public hospitals has been given the thumbs up by voters.

So it's full steam ahead for better or worse. But the new Government does have a green hue. There will be two senior Green Party ministers around the cabinet table for Harney to contend with. Speaking in the Dail after she had been re-appointed Health Minister by the Taoiseach, Harney went on a fairly amusing riff about entering a new political ecology; a new biosphere and embracing all forms of human life - in reference to her new Green pals.

She won't have it all her own way at cabinet this time around, but it might take more than two Green TDs to stop her building private hospitals. Things will be the same, but different.

What will be interesting to watch is whether there is any limit to the public sympathy for Harney the Health Heroine. Every time things go badly she seems to benefit from it.

But enough cynicism. Maybe Mary Harney now has the mandate, the time and the mentality to achieve lasting reform. After all, she has nothing to lose.

Harney has indicated that she won't seek re-election, so popularity does matter much. The Taoiseach has backed her by re-appointing her. The Tanaiste and Finance Minister is a former Health Minister so he understands her pain (it was Cowen who dubbed health 'Angola' because of political landmines have a habit of blowing up in Ministers' faces).

So, Minister, go for broke. Even if the system is even worse in five years, the public will forgive you.