This morning someone from abroad told me that Ireland is a beautiful country. I was very pleased to hear that, since it certainly is. As I was not born here and chose the country as my homeland a long time ago, I can probably see it even more strongly than those who have never been anywhere else.
But, as the poet has it, where there is beauty, there is also usually some kind of a beast about. In Ireland's case this part is currently played by Mary Harney, our Minister for Health. She must be the most unpopular politician in the country, and this has nothing to do with her being a woman. It is a combination of her abrasive personality and her disastrous policies that has put her in the emerald doghouse for a long time.
Like many bad politicians she had a good start by being rewarded for failure. When she made a bit of academic history by becoming the first female auditor of the then male-dominated Historical Society at Dublin's Trinity College, she came to the attention of Jack Lynch, then leader of the Fianna Fáil (FF) party. In the 1977 general election she stood as a FF candidate, but was not elected. Instead of going home and doing what most unelected political candidates do - be disappointed for a while, then pick themselves up and try again next time - Mary Harney, then an inexperienced young teacher, got a taste for power and cronyism. Jack Lynch, who had won the election and become Taoiseach, made his protégée a Senator (as one of the eleven appointed by An Taoiseach). At the age of 24 she was the youngest person ever to become a member of Seanad Éireann (the upper house of our parliament) and still holds this record.
In 1981, with some experience and a lot more support from her party, she was elected to Dáil Éireann (the lower house of our parliament) in the Dublin South-West constituency, having had her first electoral success already two years earlier, when she won a seat on Dublin City Council.
After only four years on the back benches, she became a leading member of the so-called "Gang of 22" who voted in favour of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and was expelled from Fianna Fáil. The following year she became founder member of a new party, called Progressive Democrats (PD), under the leadership of former FF minister Desmond O'Malley. Almost all of the early PD members were disgruntled ex-FF politicians who had issues with the abrasive and authoritarian style of the then party leader and Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
It came therefore as a surprise to many when in 1989 the Progressive Democrats joined FF in a coalition government under Haughey's leadership. This move brought Mary Harney her first bit of real power, as she was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Environmental Protection. In this capacity she banned the sale of bituminous coal and thus can claim the credit for having eliminated the capital city's infamous smog.
But the coalition with Haughey was not an easy one, and in late 1992 the PDs withdrew from the government, which also marked the end of Haughey's political career. (After the following general election FF, under their new leader Albert Reynolds, formed a new coalition with the Labour Party.)
In February 1993 Mary Harney was appointed deputy leader of the Progressive Democrats and succeeded Desmond O'Malley as party leader in October. This was probably the turning point in her personal and political attitudes. Like many women with political power, she began to show a certain toughness and became more and more abrasive, as if she had to prove that she was even harder than the men.
Following the hard fought 1997 general election and lengthy negotiations, the PDs entered once again into coalition government with Fianna Fáil, now led by the former Finance Minister Bertie Ahern. Harney was appointed as the first female Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
In this new role she began rapidly to make political enemies and to become highly unpopular in large parts of the Irish population, mainly because of her extreme capitalist ideology and anti-union attitudes. She became the main champion of privatisation of public services and utility companies and is responsible for much of the turmoil these measures caused (and still cause) in contemporary Ireland. At the same time she substantially reduced government support for the community employment scheme and various social support networks, forcing many of them to close due to lack of funding.
There were many occasions when she showed a preference for private over national interests. In December 2001, to name just one significant example, she used a government aircraft (50% funded by the EU Commission and meant to be used exclusively for maritime surveillance) to fly to County Leitrim (in the far north-west of Ireland) to officially open a friend's off-licence (alcohol shop). When the story surfaced, she was forced to apologise and admit that she had abused her position, but that was it and no further consequences followed.
In the 2002 general election, riding on the unexpected economic boom Ireland had enjoyed since 1995 (when both FF and PD were in opposition), the Progressive Democrats doubled their parliamentary seats from four to eight and the ruling coalition continued, with Harney retaining her previous positions. However, a year later she was reported to "seek new challenges" and looking for a new department. In the cabinet reshuffle of September 2004 she was appointed Minister for Health and Children, while remaining Tánaiste. (Ireland must be the only country in the world where a clinically obese person can become responsible for the health service. In all other countries I know this would be seen as very bad PR, to say the least.)
Soon it became clear why she had sought this change, when she embarked on a ruthless policy of privatisation in the health sector, just as she had done in the field of other public services before. This has led to a disastrous two-tier system, which critics call quite fittingly an apartheid health service. And while waiting lists for treatment grow ever longer and patients have to wait long hours on hospital trolleys before being seen by a doctor, Mary Harney is unrepentant and keeps attending numerous opening ceremonies for new private hospitals and health facilities.
In March 2006, 16 months after Harney took office as Minister for Health, the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) announced that a record number of 455 people were waiting on hospital trolleys in Ireland on one single day. Two months later the INO unanimously passed a motion of no confidence in Mary Harney, accusing her of being negative and antagonistic towards nurses.
In June 2006 an official statistic ranked the Irish health service as the second least "consumer-friendly" in Europe, coming 25th out of 26 countries, ahead only of Lithuania.
And in July the Ireland on Sunday newspaper reported that Harney's mother, Mrs. Sarah Harney, jumped a queue of two emergency cases to receive hip surgery at the Adelaide and Meath Hospital in Tallaght (a suburb of Dublin).
Also in 2006 Harney introduced "risk equalisation" into the Irish healthcare market, which was hugely resisted by the private British health insurer BUPA . Despite High Court proceedings, the controversial law was upheld and this has forced BUPA out of the Irish healthcare market (BUPA Ireland has since been bought by the private Irish owned Quinn Group). In January 2007 a leaked memo from Harney stated that the planned Cancer Care Strategy, due for completion in 2011, would not be delivered on time. The list could go on and on, but I don't want to make this entry a never-ending story.
In an Irish Times poll in December 2006 60% of the respondents said that the appointment of Ms. Harney to the position of Minister for Health had not led to any improvement in the health service.
Having meanwhile come under pressure from inside her own party, Mary Harney resigned as PD leader and Tánaiste on September 7th, 2006. She was succeeded in both positions by her deputy, the then Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, a man even more abrasive and arrogant than Harney herself, but like her a died-in-the-wool supporter of plain capitalism, privatisation and social service cuts.
Subsequently the Progressive Democrats got the voters' answer in the 2007 general election. Of their eight TDs (members of parliament) only two were re-elected (and with drastically reduced voter numbers). Unfortunately Harney was one of the two, just about scraping back into the Dáil, while McDowell and all other leading party officials lost their seats.
Nevertheless the decimated and almost wiped out PDs, now again with Harney as the "acting" leader (because no one else wants the job), were once again brought back into the government by Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney retains her portfolio as Minister for Health. Of all the many scandals the current government has produced, this is probably the largest and most significant, and a clear slap in the face of the Irish electorate.
It is unlikely that Bertie Ahern will ever sack his strange protégée and former deputy, but given the trouble he is in himself in recent months it might not be his decision for too much longer. If Mary Harney has any common sense and decency left in herself, she might well consider her position and gently jump before she might be pushed by the next Taoiseach. In six weeks she will be celebrating her 55th birthday, and perhaps this might be an appropriate occasion to step down after more than three decades in politics. If nothing else, the Irish people - myself included - would be grateful to her.
The Emerald Islander