Michael Noonan will never be rid of the name of Bridget McCole. Even those in Ireland who hold him in the highest regard, those who sing his praises most lustily, cannot ignore what he did to a 54-year-old dying mother of 12 children, when he was Minister for Health in the 1990s.
Michael Noonan is hailed as a hero by Ireland’s business elites, and their scribes. In 2012, the Sunday Business Post described the man who, this week, insisted that Germany and the ECB grind Greek pensioners into the dirt, as
‘a calm, Buddha-like figure exuding authority and optimism, leavened with a sense of humour’.
Noonan, the profile continued, had
‘the appearance of a man at the peak of his game’
‘the master of all he surveys’; ‘popular among his party colleagues, especially the army of bright, ambitious young men and women’; ‘well able to take and justify tough decisions … (but) never the tough bruiser some in the media made him out to be’.
Such glowing tribute would not look out of place in a newspaper from Ceaușescu-era Romania. But for all that, the profile could not avoid noting the ‘negative publicity he received in health at the time over the death of Bridget McCole’. It highlighted the ‘traumatic effect’ the publicity had: on Noonan.
Bridget McCole, along with 1,600 others, had been poisoned: infected with Hepatitis C. She had been administered anti-D Human Immunogloblin manufactured by the State’s Blood Transfusion Service Board. The anti-D, it emerged in the course of the subsequent inquiry, had been extracted from a patient with hepatitis, without the patient’s consent. The victims’ umbrella group, Positive Action, was threatened with “uncertainties, delays, stresses, confrontation and costs” if it chose to go further than what was on offer from the State. As Fintan O’Toole summarised:
‘The message was clear – accept the expert group report, take the money, don’t ask for an admission of liability, and don’t ask any more questions.’
Bridget McCole decided to pursue her case in spite of the threats. She wanted to sue under an assumed name. It was a reasonable enough request, but the State insisted that her identity be exposed to the public: the subtle application of stigma, of being exposed in public as the bearer of a disease, would doubtless prevent others who might be minded to sue from getting notions.
As Bridget McCole lay dying, Michael Noonan consented to threatening her and her family with ruin. O’Toole:
‘solicitors for the BTSB wrote to her solicitors offering to admit liability, to settle her case and to apologise for the BTSB negligence. But they warned that if Mrs McCole refused to settle and continued to seek exemplary or punitive damages, they would seek “all additional costs thereby incurred”‘.
They would make an example out of her.
Noonan was the Minister for Health. Bridget McCole was the victim of gross negligence on the part of a State body that was covering its tracks.
In a democratic society, someone in Noonan’s position of power is bound to act in the interests of the citizen failed by the relevant public body. In this case, however, Noonan acted in the interests of the State, and in keeping with the urgings of the body covering its tracks.
Behind Noonan was the swell of established practice, the sense cultivated over long decades in the top echelons of Ireland’s political, business and medical worlds, that if you give an inch, the unentitled mob will take a mile. Noonan, the Minister for Health, gave the nod to the letter based on an idea of the victim -the person demanding her basic rights as a citizen be vindicated- as the enemy.
The vindictiveness, the contempt, the casual dehumanising of the victim- was made plain and widely known when details of the dealings were made public. And yet it was no obstacle to Noonan becoming leader of Fine Gael, and later Minister of Finance.
As noted above, Noonan’s treatment by the press these days, despite this horrible behaviour, stops just short of hagiographical. But even at the time, in the 1990s, when the tawdry details emerged, the Irish Times cast him as a victim too, alongside the women infected with Hepatitis C. Noonan was ‘the victim of a political parsimony which would try to protect the taxpayers’ interests’, A victim with -like Christ- a cross to bear:
Mr Noonan will have to continue to bear his political cross, his only consolation being, perhaps, that his is a smaller and lighter cross than those borne by the women who were the ultimate victims of the whole scandal.
It was precisely Noonan’s ruthlessness, his willingness to make the “tough decisions”, to take one for the team, as demonstrated by his matter-of-fact extreme cruelty to Bridget McCole, that cemented his respected status in the eyes of the great and the good. Respectable Ireland is ever on the lookout for someone willing to put the boot in, someone willing to make sure hard reality prevails, someone willing to take a stand for the State before things get out of hand: someone who embodies precisely those values lauded so highly when it comes to making cuts to vital health, education and social services. Someone who will face down the uppity Greeks, or dying mothers from Donegal: whatever shape the enemy takes.
For all the high-flown claims to “protecting the most vulnerable”, Ireland’s establishment protects its class interests with an intensity that takes on the most vicious of forms when the need arises. And when Noonan puts the boot into Greece, and takes the inevitable flak for it, he does so in the knowledge that ultimately, those who matter have got his back. He is there because of Bridget McCole, not in spite of her.