Varadkar must harness his aloofness, arrogance and self-regard to succeed

14-05 John speaking 3

[As published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday July 13, 2014]

‘Varadkar is sufficiently unmindful of his master’s bidding to ignore attempts to transform the department into an office of the Campaign to Re-Elect the Taoiseach’

Former transport minister has been the stand-out performer in Government so far.

TWO apparently unrelated events this week might provide the first glimmer of a new dawn in Irish healthcare. One, obviously, was the appointment of the brainy and talented Dr Leo Varadkar as health minister. I would rate Mr Varadkar as being the stand-out ministerial performer in the current Government, while acknowledging that the competition for that accolade has been, shall we say, a little uneven.

The other, and smaller, glimmer was the successful insertion by the Seanad of my amendment to the new General Practice Bill, an amendment to prohibit any gagging clause in the new ‘under-six’ GP contract. The draft version of the contract included precisely such a clause, and caused dismay and outrage among family doctors.

The Government, represented in the chamber by Minister of State Alex White, declared it was opposed to any such gagging, but then inexplicably rejected the amendment, forcing me to call a vote, which it subsequently lost. Such government defeats are rare.

As I pointed out in the Oireachtas Health Committee, whistleblowing is vital to a democracy, and if we as a society had a little more cultural tolerance for it we might have avoided several disasters.
In particular, the apparatus of government, which appears to adhere to the South Armagh school of public information (whatever you say, say nothin’) could do with a good dose of disclosure.

It is now widely known, to the point of being a folk memory, that very few voices — prominently and nearly exclusively economist Morgan Kelly — cautioned that our economy was in a far less healthy situation during the pseudoboom than was widely appreciated.

It is also well-chewed commentary fodder that there was a distinct lack of economic expertise in theDepartment of Finance when the catastrophic mistakes were being made.
What is less well-known is that such expertise existed and was ignored.

Marie Mackle, a civil servant in the department, was a near lone voice of wisdom and reason in the corridors of power, a woman who cautioned that the banks and the economy were heading for serious trouble.

She was not only not listened to but was effectively silenced and cautioned to get with the programme, to play for the team. As we now know, to our cost, far from the soft landing that her bosses told her was the likely outcome of the housing bubble, the economy was, in fact, heading for the type of landing that a pilotless airliner achieves in a typhoon.

The official reaction to the garda whistleblowers McCabe and Wilson provides a more proximate example. No one in their direct chain of command, including the Taoiseach, the Justice Minister, and the Garda Commissioner, reacted appropriately to their disclosures. Most chose to ignore or to discredit them.

The process of coverup and of intimidation of these good men was finally exposed, resulting in a rare victory for the good guys. The exposure, however, came from outside. It did not occur because the system worked. The system failed them very badly.

It occurred because of Leo Varadkar. Mr Varadkar, who broke ranks with party and administration to describe the actions of the whistleblowers as “distinguished“, initially had to face down substantial criticism from Fine Gael grandees that he wasn’t playing for the team (when, oh when, will these dopes ever learn hand of the ever-reluctant leadership to do the right thing.

The very aspects of Mr Varadkar’s personality that sometimes attract criticism — a perception of aloofness, arrogance and self-regard — will, if harnessed and channelled appropriately, provide powerful tools if he is to effect real reform of our mediocre health service. These personality attributes will equip him to deal with the “vested interests” (in truth mostly mythical not medical) that thwart reform. While the reshuffle in general seems to have more to do with pre-electoral damage control than with fostering revolutionary change, I believe that Mr Varadkar is sufficiently unmindful of his master’s bidding to ignore attempts to transform the department into a branch office of the Campaign to Re-Elect the Taoiseach.

He is also better equipped than most to avoid the biggest pitfall facing any new minister in our parliamentary system, that of being taken captive by the civil service. His record also indicates that he is unlikely to mis-identify the interests of a public body with the public interest.

I wish him, and Dr James Reilly, well in their new responsibilities.

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