Today, Michael Noonan (more about him here) attended the opening of a private hospital facility in Limerick. Noonan is a former Minister for Health, and is the current Minister for Finance. The official Twitter account of the Department of Finance posted a photo of the Minister at the opening. Among other things, this shows how it is official government policy to promote the continued privatisation of health care.
Noonan is hardly the first minister from the Fine Gael government to endorse the opening of private health care facilities. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and Leo Varadkar when he was Minister for Health have both done so, and for all I know, the current Minister, Simon Harris, may well have done the same.
You are unlikely to hear any Fine Gael minister saying that they actually support the continued privatisation of health care. They are more likely to say that the ‘two-tier healthcare system’ is ‘unfair, because it allows some people to buy faster access to treatment’ and ‘inequitable because it denies people treatment when they need it‘.
Leo Varadkar even went as far as to liken the introduction of free GP care for children under 6 as a comparable moment to the foundation of the National Health Service in the UK. Varadkar, the Nye Bevan of Castleknock.
They will say anything to get elected.
Why, exactly, is the Minister for Finance attending the opening of a healthcare facility in Limerick? What does the Minister for Finance have to do with building private hospitals? Was it through his deft administration of tax breaks for private hospital firms that the hospital got built? Possibly, but it seems more likely that it was because the hospital is opening in Limerick, and Michael Noonan is also a TD for Limerick City.
So by turning up -as Minister for Finance- to open a private hospital in Limerick, Michael Noonan is showing the local constituency that it pays to have a Minister from your constituency in cabinet, pulling irons out of the fire on your behalf.
This is so common in Ireland these days that people hardly notice. A sign at the end of our road during a previous election campaign had James Reilly, another Fine Gael Minister for Health, telling constituents that North County Dublin needed a minister from the area in cabinet. Alan Kelly, the former Labour Minister, had a billboard in Tipperary that read ‘Minister Alan Kelly… Keep Tipperary At The Top Table‘.
The thing about all this, as I’ve written before, is that Ministers are supposed to be public servants. And being a public servant means you are not supposed to favour any particular constituency or individual over another. To do that would be…well, corruption.
But the prevailing attitude, when it comes to political power and the possibility of delivering favours, appears to be: if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
So far, so humdrum: political hypocrisy and venality, in the service of private power. People shrug their shoulders and say things like ‘sure they’re all at it’.
Maybe it will all be forgotten by the time the next shocking exposé on some HSE facility comes along, followed by some angry words from the current incumbent at the Department of Health, followed by some heartfelt apology from some HSE mandarin, followed by lengthy technical and logistical discussions about how it is that elderly patients are left dying on corridors, followed by ads for Beacon Hospitals or the Blackrock Clinic aimed at those gripped by fear.
(Fun fact: I noticed recently that the Beacon Renal unit in Drogheda is directly opposite a KFC.)
On this occasion, however, there is something extra going on.
The Bon Secours private hospital that Michael Noonan as Minister for Finance is opening bears the same name as the religious order that operated the Tuam Mother-and-Baby home, where eight hundred dead children, victims of Ireland’s carceral state, were dumped in a sewage tank and forgotten about. That is because the hospitals were founded by the order, and a Bon Secours nun is on their board of directors. The ‘new name for private healthcare’ turns out to be synonymous with unspeakable cruelty.
Likewise, The Sisters of Mercy own the Mater hospital and the Sisters of Charity own St. Vincent’s Hospital. Those orders also operated industrial schools and ran Magdalene Laundries.
As I wrote before, in Ireland, the idea that religious orders should own hospitals paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal. The idea that religious orders should own schools paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal too. But it is a normality that was achieved in part by dumping the corpses of poor children into cesspits.
The officially acknowledged involvement of the religious orders in deeply abusive and repressive institutions has had no effect on their ownership of hospitals funded by the public. Many of the same voices who diagnose the problems of the past in such terms as ‘the State outsourcing its responsibilities to the Church’ will, curiously, fall silent when it comes to the matter of how these organisations remain at the heart of Ireland’s health care system, and how they make sure, through the privatisation of health care, that the suffering of the poor will continue to pay for the health of the rich. Private health care advertising helps pay the bills, after all.
Perhaps Noonan appearing to open a Bon Secours private hospital will get some negative media attention. If so, a lot of it will likely focus on the ‘bad optics’, or the poor judgment involved in turning up. I doubt any of it will trace any continuity between the carceral state of the past and the two-tier health system of the present.
Perhaps the Communications Clinic had other matters to deal with today. But maybe with the right PR strategy, the day Michael Noonan drove his ministerial car over the bones of dead neglected children to get his photo taken will just be remembered as one more day on the road to national maturity, that final rendez-vous when all have been made to understand that ‘public’ means inferior and degenerate, and that ‘private’ means virtuous and divine, and Noonan is fondly remembered as a canny éminence grise, sadly departed. Unless, that is, enough people shout stop.