A MIXED reaction from the Plain People of Ireland greeted the news that Fine Gael had allowed the tendering process for a children’s hospital in Dublin to jump €450m over budget.
On the one hand, the public watched with a sense of repressed fury the controversy unfold, convinced that the Fine Gael government was composed of catatonic politicos who were more incompetent than the most incompetent Tories anywhere.
And, on the other hand, people wanted heads to roll for the way the government turned the proper management of public policy into a disastrous failure. But, more than anything, they sought accurate information on the cost of the National Children’s Hospital.
Inevitably, Fine Gael stonewalling had the effect of pushing Varadkar and crew into a corner where, presumably, they were horror-struck at the possibility that persistent calls from Sinn Féin for a motion of no confidence in the government eventually would be taken seriously. Indeed, one almost pitied the afflicted Vlad as he dredged for excuses that would shift responsibility away from him.
The fact of the matter is that Fine Gael has no one to blame but itself. For instance, last September Health Minister Harris failed to answer parliamentary questions relating to the hospital’s escalating costs. He claimed that he was not in any position to release commercially-sensitive figures, telling his critics to refrain from interfering in his work. In other words (unparliamentary ones) they were to ‘feck off,’ Fr Ted style.
However, his Mussolini-like approach to parliamentary questions didn’t last long and early this month he changed his tune after being forced to admit that the hospital project needed an extra €1.4 billion. His obsequious apology to the Dáil for his failure to abide by the constitutional requirement to inform it of the over-run earned him plenty of deserved criticism.
Taoiseach Vlad’s cavalier assessment of the controversy was very simple: ‘lessons would have to be learned,’ he said, carefully avoiding any explanation as to why the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe was never informed of the escalating costs.
The Labour Party, to its credit, tore into Varadkar, accusing him of having knowledge of the excessive costs when revised spending estimates were presented to the Dáil last December. Varadkar, for his part, continued to claim that he knew nothing of the huge over-run until the first week in February. There was a long incredulous silence from the Plain People of Ireland at that old chestnut.
Labour, again to its credit, accused the Taoiseach of knowing late last year that the proposed spending for health in 2019 would not be accurate and said that he had breached his Constitutional duty by not bringing such information to the Dáil in a proper manner.
A baying mob
When Sinn Féin declared it had enough of excuses and quite properly sought Harris’s resignation, Varadkar stated that ‘accountability does not mean giving in to a baying mob!’
Then, in a somewhat pigeon-hearted fashion, he attempted to deflect criticism from himself by accusing unnamed companies of ‘low-balling’; that is submitting incorrect tenders for projects and then ramping up the cost.
Even more controversial was Varadkar’s statement that there were ‘one or two companies’ that he would like to ban from ever getting a public service contract again. His threat raised eyebrows in the exclusive and symbiotic world of Irish business where politicians and developers live cheek to jowl, although not always in a relationship beneficial to each other.
With cosmic speed, BAM, the firm behind the construction of the new National Children’s Hospital, bluntly informed Vlad of its readiness to opt out of the contract if he wanted to retender the project. It emphatically pointed out that ‘the company did not benefit inappropriately from the tender process.’
Inevitably BAM’s Cork connection, where it is involved in the proposed Events Centre on the Beamish brewery-site, hit the headlines. Costs for that project have soared to €80 million, with state investment rising from €20m to €30m. And, although three years have passed since Coveney and his then boss, Enda Kenny, turned the sod to initiate the project, not a brick has been laid.
Coveney limply pointed out that that the two BAM projects – one in Cork and the other in Dublin – had little in common. The Cork project was structured on ‘an awful lot of private sector money,’ whereas the National Children’s Hospital in Dublin was ‘100% funded by the State.’
Fianna Fáil rattled?
Last week he told De Paper: ‘What seems to have happened in relation to the National Children’s Hospital is that the estimates were wrong at the start. It wasn’t a cost wrong or anything … the Cork event centre, however, was a totally different process.’
In the meantime, the debate around the proposed Dublin hospital is continuing to raise serious questions – and some turmoil – within Mickey Martin’s Fianna Fáil. Not surprisingly, a number of FF deputies, sick of Martin’s confidence and supply scheme that provides help to a government under siege, are coming round to supporting Sinn Féin’s ‘no confidence’ motion.
Interestingly, former minister, Conor Lenihan, said grass-roots members were angry at Fianna Fáil propping up an amateurish government and that ‘incompetence was being effectively rewarded’ by the party’s decision not to support a motion of no confidence in Harris.
Another former Cabinet Minister, Mary Hanafin, said something similar. Deputies John McGuiness, Sean Fleming, and Marc McSharry, senior figures within the party, are openly dissenting and want Martin to act now and bring down the government. Martin’s position is that the party should not be responsible for a general election during the Brexit crisis, an argument that is full of holes.
Bantry a target?
But, for the moment, the rebels are in a minority, although stung by the logic of the SF leader’s comments. Mary Lou McDonald said: ‘If Micheál Martin is serious about good governance, serious about accountability, he will back our motion of no-confidence’ (She also accused Minister Harris of being a ‘serial apologiser and that saying sorry wasn’t enough. People were sick of it’).
However, Fianna Fáil’s Deputy Leader, Dara Calleary, argued that his party must continue supporting the Blueshirts because ‘we need to learn the lessons of the National Children’s Hospital’ – another pathetic excuse.
In the meantime, as this newspaper reported last week, one of the first victims of Varadkar’s bungling could be Bantry where the €10m investment announced for the town’s might be cut, and that the proposed €5.4m endoscopy unit and a €5m rehabilitation unit were for the chop!
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