WHEN should a politician resign? Or, to be more precise, when should the Taoiseach, Leo Vardadkar, and his current Health Minister, Simon Harris, resign?
Complicating the issue is the ambiguity surrounding Varadkar and Harris’s knowledge of the contents of CervicalCheck memos revealing that 209 Irish women had been given the all clear with regard to cancer smear tests when, in fact, they were not free from cancer.
The Irish Times, on May 11th, quoted Varadkar’s insistence that ‘he first became aware of the three memos circulated to HSE management in 2016’ when he was Minister for Health. He did not say he read the memos, commenting that he should have been made aware of the contents when they were known to the Department of Health. In other words the Department of Health was to blame.
Curiously, a report in ‘De Paper’ on May 12th informed us that the memos were never forwarded to either Leo Varadkar or current Health Minister Simon Harris.
All of which prompted the Sinn Fein health spokesperson, Louise O’Reilly, to observe that it was ‘critically important to find out who knew what and when.’ She asked why information was kept from the ministers and why the ministers themselves did not insist that all relevant information came across their desks.
It smacked of the Department of Health battening down the hatches and circling the wagons, she said.
Health Minister Harris said he was ‘very annoyed’ that he had not been informed of the 2016 memos. ‘Very annoyed,’ mind you, about a matter of life and death!
His use of such a bland expression suggested that at least in the initial stages the controversy was nothing more than a matter of personal irritation. His reaction was so offhand that he came across as a small-time councillor tediously having to deal with a local brouhaha rather than a Minister for Health faced with a looming national emergency.
Varadkar’s line of defence was that he was never made aware of the seriousness of 209 women getting the all-clear when the screening programme should have flagged a cancer warning.
Could it be that Harris and Varadkar, terribly important people dontcha know, actually got the memos but had no particular interest in reading them?
The response of the Plain People of Ireland has been that of incredulity, gobsmacked at Fine Gael’s barefaced admission that nobody bothered to tell the respective health ministers the life and death facts affecting more than 200 women.
Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath was somewhat more coherent in his comments. He wants Varadkar and Harris to answer further questions on the matter.
He said accountability didn’t end with the resignation of Mr Tony O’Brien, director general of Health Service Executive (HSE) and that the country had a right to be informed on who else knew about the debacle within the HSE, the Department of Health and within political circles.
Varadkar and the current Health Minister had questions to answer, he warned. ‘We don’t have any evidence that they were aware of this all along, but questions do need to be answered as to why they weren’t told by their own department.’
Which brings us to the question as to whether a government minister can be held accountable for anything?
In most of the civilised world, politicos resign when it becomes clear they no longer have the moral authority to lead and rule. Of course, when exactly a minister should resign is an inexact science, as someone said, but integrity and accountability are very measurable by the success or otherwise of a motion of no confidence in the minister.
But it’s rare enough for our ministers to be subjected to such a procedure and all the signs indicate that Varadkar and Harris, in relation to the CervicalCheck controversy, will not be held accountable to anyone.
Resignations, however, have been known to happen. Former Tánaiste, Francis Fitzgerald, resigned after accusations of meddling in the case of a whistle-blower who had claimed widespread malpractice and corruption in An Garda Siochána.
Fitzgerald, however, claimed high moral reasons for her resignation. She did it, she said, ‘for the sake of the country.’ The truth was that she had become a liability after Fianna Fáil threatened to withdraw their mudguard support for the government and trigger a general election should she refuse to go. So, grudgingly she went.
Nonetheless, as a sort of indemnity for her political embarrassment, Varadkar promised his support if she were ever inclined to throw her hat in the ring for the President of Ireland job!
Taking political responsibility for one’s political actions or, in a cabinet situation, taking responsibility for the actions of others, is not exactly a feature of Irish political life; nor are matters of principle, or resignations. In general, the strategy is endure criticism until another scandal comes along to deflect public anger. Nothing better illustrates such a fact than the Fianna Fáil-PD governments between 1997 and 2011.
Those governments destroyed the country and did so unrestrained by any sense of shame. Brazen and self-assured, the ministers responsible kept going with never a mention of any minister resigning on a point of principle.
But, in the 2011 general election, the people finally got their chance. They walloped the F&Fers for their contempt of the high office they held.
The right stuff
Elsewhere ministers resign when they don’t live up to the interests of the people. For instance, South Korea’s prime minister resigned in 2014 over his government’s handling of a ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
Three years ago, a UK minister, Grant Shapps, resigned over claims he failed to deal with bullying in the Tories’ youth wing. He said he had come to the conclusion that the ‘buck should stop with me.’ In effect, he was aware that in modern British politics the appearance of what he had allowed happen, not the reality, had discredited the government.
But, perhaps, the strangest example of someone resigning on a matter of principle occurred earlier this year.
Michael Bates, who is a member of the British House of Lords and an international development minister, arrived at a debate in the Upper House 60 seconds late. He apologised profusely for the discourtesy of not being present at the beginning of the session, commenting that ‘we should rise to the highest possible standards of respect in responding on behalf of the government to the legitimate questions of the legislature.’
And, although he was just a couple of minutes late, Lord Bates went on to say: ‘I am thoroughly ashamed at not being in my place and therefore I shall be offering my resignation to the prime minister … with immediate effect.’ Which he did!
Now, that’s the way to win respect!