Maybe there are different production values involved, or maybe it is just the time of day for the listener, but the evening radio news on RTÉ always sounds, to these ears at least, as carrying a little bit more gravitas, a little bit more auctoritas, than bulletins during the rest of the day.
Last Wednesday night, one of the headlines on the news bulletin at 9pm was that former Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell was putting his name forward for Seanad election. Further down the billing came a story that there had been an outbreak of swine flu in Navan hospital, and that the hospital had asked people to stay away from its A&E and contact their GP.
The report on McDowell came from the RTÉ political correspondent, David Davin-Power. He intimated that it was he who had learned that McDowell intended to stand, and he presented a brief potted biography of McDowell, outlining his role in government, as Attorney General, as Tánaiste, as leader of the Progressive Democrats, the loss of his seat in 2007, and his current status as a Senior Counsel and regular media commentator on political affairs.
This was self-evidently important news. Michael McDowell is important, the Seanad is important, and therefore the public needs to be told.
Hospital crises like the one in Navan, it appeared, are not so important because there are no major political players involved. Yes, tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Navan in recent years to protest overcrowding and to maintain the A&E ward in the hospital, but they could all make a human pyramid and they still wouldn’t reach the hem of McDowell’s silk gown in the eyes of RTÉ and its seasoned observers.
One of the achievements McDowell’s erstwhile political party, the Progressive Democrats, had boasted about in its final manifesto in 2007, was the establishment of the Health Services Executive.
‘As a society, we benefit from a depoliticised system area and the application instead of health and professional considerations’.
The party also promised that it would ‘bring public and private to work together for all patients’ and that it would ‘not freeze out the private sector’.
Who knows how the report on Navan hospital might have sounded, had the preceding item in the news bulletin contained the line ‘the Progressive Democrats, whose policy platform sought, among other things, to treat the private health sector warmly’.
Some -me, for one- might say that a system that brings ‘public and private to work together’ is very much a politicised system. It is just that the political interests of the private sector in this arrangement are portrayed as uncontroversial, and the political interests of the public at large -in having a decent health system- come second to keeping the place warm for profitable companies.
This is a long-standing thing in Ireland. Universal health care was seen by the Catholic Church hierarchy as a step towards communism. There was no need for the State to get involved: far better for Our Lady to keep a watchful eye. Before the HSE, the CEO of Ireland’s health system was the Queen of Heaven. Hands blessed by the Pope would both deliver babies and deliver us from communism. Nowadays the Health Minister opens an A&E department in something called ‘The Mater Private’, or ‘Mater Misericordiae Private’ to give it its full name, and hardly anyone bats an eyelid.
As a rule, the jockeying for political positions takes up far more coverage than the lonely long distance events such as getting a hospital bed, or an ambulance on time, or a decent level of care in the home. Political theatre, not operating theatres. The grand deeds of the great and good. Showtime.
When scandals relating to healthcare do come to the fore -as they inevitably do, from time to time- they appear as technical matters. Managerial matters. The Minister is appalled and wants a report, but it would be wrong to intervene. The two-tier system, when it is mentioned, appears as an inexplicable accident, a quirk of history, rather than an outcome consciously pursued over generations by people who firmly believe that healthcare is a commodity to be distributed firstly on the basis of ability to pay, and beyond that, on the basis of charity. To claim otherwise is to be frowned upon in polite company.
People lying on hospital trolleys are a vivid, quantifiable sign that something is wrong with Ireland’s health services. But there are a great many more people humiliated and made to suffer for the political choices made regarding healthcare, and for the legal framework that underpins those choices. How do you expect women in maternity wards to be guaranteed dignified treatment when the law says they do not know their own mind and that the State owns their bodies?
Evaluating the Labour Party debacle in the elections just past, a former Labour Senator wrote that the party would do well to emulate the advice of Edmund Burke. He said that Burke’s approach to representation should be ‘the hallmark, and the mindset, of the next generation of Labour politicians’. In fact, no figure typifies the attitude to wielding State power in Ireland better than Burke. He wrote:
‘Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. . . . Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of Individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the Individuals, the Inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves’
Back in those days, it was only relatively wealthy men that Burke had as his constituents. But even they had to have their inclinations thwarted by a higher power, wielded by people who, drawing on time-honoured tradition, simply knew better. Does this not describe the attitude of Ireland’s political and media establishment today? You can see this attitude prevailing in the breathless regard for elite eminence and in the condescending remarks about ‘millenarians’, ‘Poujadists’, ‘fascists’, and so on to describe people who happen to think that doing such things as relieving tax obligations on the wealthy while heaping them on the poor is not the mark of a decent government.
And whereas the indignities of homelessness, hunger and sub-standard or non-existent healthcare inflicted on thousands are treated as necessary evils inflicted on people who probably deserve it anyway, a series of scathing insults hurled at the people doing the inflicting are treated with such horror and theatrical gasping that it is as though Marie Antoinette were being dragged through the streets of Paris once again.