In the six days since Roisin Shortall resigned from her post as a Minister of State in the Department of Health, we have seen a veritable orgy of breast beating and hand wringing in media circles about the supposed act of principle involved in her decision. The media has focused primarily on the following aspects of the issue:
- that Shortall’s boss James Reilly had received from her a list of 20 proposed new primary care centres, to which he added two in his own constituency;
- that Shortall received no support from her party leader Eamon Gilmore in her rearguard action against this move;
- that Reilly’s Fine Gael cabinet colleague Leo Varadkar described the decision to add Swords and Balbriggan to his list of primary care centres as giving rise to the appearance of “stroke politics”.
Isolate the three points above and you have what sounds like an increasingly familiar meme: namely a left wing female politician stands up to the old boys club and gets short shrift; that the political insiders always act to ensure that the boat is not excessively rocked; and that real change will always give way to the considerations of careerism. This self-same dish was served up when Joan Burton was passed over for the coveted Department of Finance job and clearly enough was left over to be re-heated for Deputy Shortall’s foray into the thin air of the moral high ground. Each individual element of the conventional wisdom is (to a point) correct, of course, but still misses the broader contexts that make this affair look even more tawdry than meets the eye.
Firstly, on closer inspection, Reilly’s actions may not have been as “strokey” as they appear on the surface to be. The original list of proposed centres contained 20 locations. Reilly responded by adding 15, of which two were in his constituency. This means that 13 of his additions were outside of his constituency. Certainly, with 43 Dail constituencies, the numbers would suggest that the Minister’s constituency received a disproportionate bounty. However, the disproportion is not enormous by Irish standards and beyond the binary media view that Reilly’s actions were purely constituency related, there is a scarcely examined alternative view (expounded in this article in the Irish Times), that due to enormous Celtic Tiger era demographic shifts, Swords and Balbriggan had a relatively good case to be added to the list and should perhaps have been on it in the first place. In fact, what is most pathetic about the coverage is that it ignores what has the potential makings of a real scandal: namely the fact that Reilly chose to increase the number of primary care centres rather than to re-arrange them (i.e. shutting down one old one for each new one added). Surely, in times of fiscal stringency, it is an act of supreme electoral self-indulgence to be behaving in this fashion. What is the cost of adding 15 new primary care centres to an original list of 20? If the cost is zero and the changes will be handled within the rubric of existing budgetary limits, what level of quality diminution will result from the thinner spreading of jam that inevitably results from this type of decision? Of course, the mainstream media does not want to lift the lid on this can of worms because to do so raises the basic question about the competence of politicians to make decisions with respect to issues such as healthcare, which in turn raises the even more discomfiting question as to whether the state should be involved in the provision of these services in the first place. In such circumstances, it really is a better option to attack a specific decision and demonise a specific executive.
Secondly, what is the true nature of Deputy Shortall’s “principled” action? Fintan O’Toole in today’s Irish Times seems in no doubt, saying that Shortall’s spat “dramatised in the clearest possible way the difference between machine politics and good governance based on clear principles and objective evidence”. Once again, we see the media meme of the good left wing woman v. the bad right wing man doing battle between a governance based upon good clinical judgement and one based upon scandalous ulterior motives. However, while the veneer covering this argument is certainly lustrous, it is thin indeed. Where was Deputy Shortall’s sense of moral particularity earlier on this year when her Labour colleague in the Department of Transport, Alan Kelly burdened taxpayers to the tune of €20,000 per day by adding four extra daily services to an already loss-making Irish Rail line operating in his constituency? Did it not occur to Ms. Shortall that her own party’s links to the public sector might have had something to do with the series of “strokes” which led to the government cutting a mere €3.5 million out of a promised €75 million in public service allowances? Was the good Deputy on a public sector sick day when her boss Dr. Reilly pointed out that thanks to the Croke Park agreement, which her party insists on supporting due to its close links with public sector unions and reliance on their members’ votes, he was unable to make any economies in relation to a staggering 70% of his budget? Also, did Ms. Shortall fail to notice any whiff of clientelism or special interest politics in her party leader’s refusal to state whether or not he would support the Croke Park agreement until the public sector unions indicated their assent to it? The answers to these questions indicate that, at the very least, Ms. Shortall is rather selective when it comes to her outrage at the dispensation of political patronage.
However, the facts even put into question whether Ms. Shortall’s motivations behind her original list of primary care centres were all that pure. It appears that when Ms Shortall was drawing up her original list, a crucial component in the criteria for designation was “deprivation“, a vague catch-all term used by politicians and NGOs to denote the conditions of a largely urban, low-earning, highly subsidised demographic with generally low rates of workforce participation. Of course, when one takes out one’s political map, one sees a remarkable similarity between the list of urban, eastern constituencies in which there are high concentrations of “deprivation” (Dublin Central, Dublin South Central, Dublin South West, Dublin South East, Dublin Mid West and Roisin Shortall’s own constituency of Dublin North West) and the list of constituencies in which the Labour party obtains its highest number of votes and seats. At the same time, this criterion of “deprivation” tends to have a disproportionately negative impact on the largely suburban and rural constituencies in which Fine Gael has the lion’s share of its support. The use of the “deprivation” criterion might have been justified if the program in question related to social welfare or social housing with an inherent redistributive component. However, this seems harder to justify when dealing with a national infrastructural service such as healthcare, which is supposed to be provided for the benefit of the population at large (indeed, Ms. Shortall’s own complaints about an absence of free GP care for all indicate that she believes that the program as currently constituted is too redistributive and should provide more to the better healed).
Of course, the above might be too complicated by half. After all, it was hardly a secret that Ms. Shortall was not happy about the failure of Kenny and Gilmore to appoint her to cabinet in 2011. So perhaps, when all is said and done, we are talking about good old fashioned resentment and envy at those who have achieved preferment within the political jungle. After all, in the iconic words of Gwilym Lloyd George: “Politicians are like monkeys. The higher they climb up the tree, the more revolting are the parts they expose.”
Finally though, regardless of any of the factors which constitute the matrix (complex or not) of Ms. Shortall’s decision to resign from government, there is a wider issue of how advocates of government interventionism and distributionism can viably oppose the use of electoral criteria in making technical and administrative decisions. After all, if Fintan O’Toole is correct and it is possible to make decisions in public policy based upon “clear principles and objective evidence”, how can this be reconciled with the democratic process, which institutionalises the concept of voters promising their support to politicians in return for those politicians making decisions that are profitable to them. Indeed, the entire social democratic experiment which began in 1945 institutionalises a politics based upon patronage. However, it is patronage based upon class, whose theoretical precepts generate a bizarre universe in which certain types of self-interested political chicanery which privatise profits and socialise costs are defined as righteous. More interestingly, the people who are most obsessively wedded to this type of political patronage are the most likely to rail against the geographical patronage which underpins the “parish pump” system. Sadly for the distributionist, he has opened a Pandora’s box, in which legal and political infrastructure can be put to radically different purposes to those intended. It is probably for this reason that statist politicians and commentators like Shortall and O’Toole so enthusiastically demonise pork barrel and patronage based systems and retreat into a fantasy world in which their noble welfare state project is perfect but corrupted by external forces.
So there you have it. In this fight, my sympathies lie (on balance) with the beleaguered Fine Gael and Labour leaderships. Tantrums from children are unpleasant to watch but tantrums from grown-ups are worse, especially when bathed in such a smug sense of self-righteousness which seems to come naturally to well-paid but perpetually aggrieved politicians like Roisin Shortall. However, my sympathies are relative. Shortall’s noxiously narcissistic public temper tantrum represents the ugly crescendo to a piece whose overture was written by her boss Eamon Gilmore in the halcyon days of opposition. Between 2008 and 2011, Gilmore left no barrel unscraped when it came to making populist rabble rousing promises on taxes and spending which he must have known he had no ability to keep – incidentally Fintan O’Toole egged him on saying he should “settle for more“. As for Fine Gael, the party has perhaps the highest duty in the Irish political system today, which is to defend free market capitalism on behalf of Ireland’s reasonable majority. Thus far, their support for the European fiscal treaty which opens the door to tax harmonisation, continued bank bailouts for bondholders whose recklessness should be punishable in accordance with ordinary free market principles and their scandalous smash and grab attack on private sector pensions (all while leaving the Croke Park giveaway in place) stand as shocking and ongoing monuments to their failure. Indeed, the “stroke politics” of James Reilly represents yet another symbol of why the Irish government continues to make pathetic progress in reducing spending. Perhaps though, the good that may come from this debacle will be that the electorate may begin its slow education about the bigger “strokes” that underpin our entire system of government.